CHICAGO – Consider this: Questions about the future of Brian Urlacher have lasted longer than the careers of most NFL players.
Urlacher turned 30 years old in May 2008, prompting whispers about whether his best days were behind him. The questions gained volume in 2009, 2010 and 2011 as the Pro Bowl linebacker approached his mid-30s.
Now, as the Bears prepare to report to training camp next week, familiar questions about Urlacher’s age are likely to re-emerge. Those questions will be accompanied by concerns about Urlacher’s left knee, which he sprained in last season’s finale but claims is healthy now.
At age 34, Urlacher is older than every other player on the Bears’ 90-man training camp roster except 37-year-old long snapper Patrick Mannelly.
But unlike Mannelly, whose job is based on a specialized task, Urlacher cannot afford to lose a step as the Bears’ middle linebacker. In coach Lovie Smith’s “Tampa 2” defense, Urlacher must be quick enough to drop into pass coverage while being strong enough to stuff the run.
So far, Urlacher has done an excellent job of dodging Father Time.
Despite missing almost all of the 2009 season because of a dislocated wrist suffered in Week 1, he returned with robustness to earn back-to-back Pro Bowl selections in 2010 and 2011. Those marked his seventh and eighth career Pro Bowl selections, padding a career résumé that seems more likely every season to lead to an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
But Urlacher has unfinished business before that moment arrives.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound New Mexico native is entering his 13th season with the Bears, who appear poised to make a run at the playoffs. Although Urlacher has appeared in one Super Bowl and two NFC championship games, he has not won a ring like fellow elite linebackers such as Baltimore’s Ray Lewis and Green Bay’s Clay Matthews III.
As last season waned, Urlacher acknowledged the urgency to win a title while he, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and others remained playing at a high caliber.
“We’re urgent every year,” Urlacher said during his final interview last season. “That’s our ultimate goal. We want to win the Super Bowl.
“It just makes it harder now because Green Bay’s so ... good. They’re in our division, they’re the best team in the NFL the last two years, so it’s going to be a big hurdle for us to get over. But there’s urgency every single year to try and accomplish that goal.”