Every year the NFL goes through an off-season period that redefines the shape of every one of the teams in the League for the season to come. Team executives make decisions regarding re-signing players, signing other team’s free agents, trading for players, replacing retired players, drafting the best college prospects, renegotiating contract terms, releasing players, replacing coaches, changing schemes, etc…
Sometimes these decisions are easy, sometimes they require a great deal of analysis and deliberation. No matter how big or how small, they all factor into the big picture. How does a team know it is making the “right decision?” How can an athlete know what is best for him?
Last week the media picked up and ran with one of these more popular NFL off-season decisions: The saga that is Brian Urlacher and the Chicago Bears.
Becoming a Staple
Brian Urlacher had become the face of the Bears organization and rightly so. He has not only been productive throughout his 13 year career, but he has been reliable, missing only 26 of a possible 208 regular season games due to injury! This is unheard of for a player that plays a position that requires a strong physical presence on every down. Even more impressive is the fact that he never came off the field on defense: Other players cycle in or rotate based upon the defensive formation or game situation. Urlacher never came out, and yet he still hardly ever missed games. He proved that longevity is possible… However, I would argue that Urlacher had to go.
Urlacher has been a vital part of the Bears defense. In an era where players are quick to change teams, Urlacher has spent his whole career as a starter at middle linebacker for the Bears. He came into the NFL as a hybrid linebacker-safety but was immediately moved to middle linebacker. He has been so successful that he has not been asked to shift positions since. Never has a new coach come in and tried to replace him with a younger player. Not once have the Bears sought to trade him to acquire other talent in return. Urlacher’s career has been the epitome of enduring success and stability in professional sports.
Most other players in the NFL are forced to change teams throughout the course of their career. If they want to maximize the length of their career, changing teams is a necessity. A very small number of players stay with one team, and those that last that long hardly ever attain double digit years of experience in the NFL! Urlacher has been a rare player. Some players stay, most players go. And despite his admirable history, I contend that Urlacher had to go.
Urlacher was the perfect fit for the Bears Cover 2 defensive scheme. This type of system requires a linebacker that can drop into coverage. This player must be agile and sift through oncoming blockers. Urlacher did these things well. Despite his pedigree as a tough physical presence, Urlacher was actually more of a finesse linebacker. I studied enough game tape of him to see that he often looked to get around blockers rather than taking them on. He built his game on diagnosing the play and getting to the ballcarrier as quickly as possible. Most linebackers are taught to take on blockers with a shoulder, maintain their ground, and shed a blocker with their hands as the ballcarrier approaches. This is because running around a blocker would typically result in the linebacker being out of position, leaving a running lane open. But Urlacher’s style worked perfectly in the Tampa 2, and he thrived. And yet it stands, Urlacher had to go.
Urlacher received a financial bounty right off the bat. Entering the NFL as the ninth overall pick in the NFL Draft, Urlacher was given a five year contract worth nearly $8 million dollars. I can imagine this was quite a shift in lifestyle after previously playing at the University of New Mexico. After extraordinary play during the first 3 years of his initial rookie deal, he received a new, much more lucrative contract. Over the next 10 years of his career, he would average $7,470,000 in compensation annually. He was better than his peers, and he had earned a higher compensation for that reason.
But things have since changed. Urlacher is now 35 years of age, making him more of a risk for injury. Last season was only the third time in 13 years that he missed 1 or more games in a season. The Bears have also changed their coaching staff as one of those crucial off-season decisions. With a change in staff often comes a change in scheme, thereby no longer making Urlacher an ideal fit. With Urlacher’s contract having expired, Chicago now had complete control over establishing a new price for his services. Given the aforementioned circumstances, Urlacher was not worth anything close to $7,470,000 for 2013.
Urlacher is another perfect example of a necessary decision during the off-season. While the mass media would have you believe that retaining him was one of Chicago’s more difficult decisions, I BEG TO DIFFER. Urlacher was a relatively easy decision. His contract had expired. While his leadership was valued, leadership alone has never been a good reason to pay a player at an elite level. After analysis, Chicago was able to reach an appropriate maximum value of $2 million for Urlacher in 2013. And had he not been a consistently successful and beloved player, he probably would have received an even smaller offer. Nonetheless, Chicago informed Urlacher and his agent that they would love to have him back on a one year deal for $2 million. Urlacher balked.
No Longer Reality
Like so many other aging veteran athletes, Urlacher perceived his value to be much higher than it realistically was. He had grown accustomed to being paid as one of the highest paid players at his position with the security of multi-year contracts. As Urlacher has illustrated, he views a lesser offer as a slap in the face, but in reality, the less lucrative proposal is his actual value at this stage of his career!
Too many older professional athletes that have been successful don’t want to embrace their regression. They have typically lost a step and have bodies that are more susceptible to injury. They cannot accept the fact that their careers are winding down and life as they know it will soon change. They don’t have a planned next step.
On top of that, changing teams also means learning a new system and less comfort playing in the new system. Any team acquiring such a veteran sees the risks involved. Sadly enough, too many athletes like Urlacher don’t realize how good they had it until they test the market and see that there are no better situations out there. Other teams are offering no better of a contract: In most cases, other teams are offering less. Pride gets in the way.
In this specific instance, the distance between the positions of the two sides made it obvious that Urlacher would not be playing for Chicago in 2013. The Bears knew he was worth no more than $2 million. Urlacher decided he would not play for that cheap. End of story. There is no sudden stunning revelation here. But if you listen to the media, they would have you believe this divorce was an absolute shock to the sports world. As an educated reader, you now understand the predictability of these decisions when they unfold in the future. For Urlacher, reality might have sunk in too late.
Going for Broke
Urlacher viewed the Bears’ offer to re-sign him as inadequate:
“It wasn’t really an offer,” Urlacher recently told SiriusXM NFL Radio. “It was either sign or we don’t want you… [The offer] is a lot of money, don’t get me wrong, but for me to go through a season, put my body through what it goes through during a season at my age, I’m not going to play for that, you know, not for the Bears at least.”
In essence he is saying that he will put his body through another season, just not for the Bears.
Urlacher knows what he is looking for in a new team saying, “I’m an old fart, so I want to go in there and win. Maybe nobody wants me, but we’re gonna find out.” on The Dan Patrick Show.
“I really don’t think they wanted me back,” Urlacher added, saying that he believes the team’s initial offer is now “gone.” He would be correct. After outright rejecting the Bears contract offer, his only choice is to move on. And it seems that he has realized that playing in 2013 will likely require him to play for even less than $2 million. The Bears had the best offer, but with that offer no longer available, Urlacher playing with another team will not be about making the most money. Rather, playing elsewhere in the NFL in 2013 will be merely proving his worth as he sets the stage for a grudge-match with the Bears.
The Bear Necessities
Like any well-run organization, Chicago had a back-up plan, and they moved quickly after Urlacher made it known he would not accept their 1-year contract offer. To replace Urlacher, the Bears have signed inside linebacker D.J. Williams, who was released 11 days prior by the Denver Broncos. The Broncos viewed Williams as a significant risk due to his two violations with substance abuse last season. After being cited for driving while intoxicated and then violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, he was appropriately suspended for 9 games. The Broncos didn’t want to pay a $6 million salary to a player they could not rely on, so they let him go.
Chicago apparently believes Williams is worth the risk. Williams is no pushover; he has had some successful seasons in the NFL. Chicago likely believes he will be a better fit than Urlacher, especially considering that he is 5 years younger and signed a cheaper contract!
The End Game
So Brian Urlacher will not be a Chicago Bear in 2013. Given the analysis above, you can see how the stage was set. Urlacher was blind to the truth of situation. So it was no momentous event that the two sides announced they would be going their separate ways. And so I maintain: Urlacher had to go. Do you agree?