Brian Urlacher is one of the greatest middle linebackers in NFL history. He made eight Pro Bowls, claimed Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2005, and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His success isn’t the craziest thing. Nobody questioned his otherworldly talent. It is the fact that his career almost didn’t involve playing that position in the first place. People had never heard the story of how Urlacher became the Bears’ middle linebacker. Until now.
Fans often forget the man wasn’t a linebacker when the team drafted him in 2000. He’d spent most of his college career as a safety. However, his 6’4 size and substantial strength made him an obvious option for shifting to linebacker. The problem is the coaching staff didn’t have initial success doing this. Head coach Dick Jauron saw him as the perfect strong-side linebacker in the team’s 4-3 defense.
That was the plan at first.
Things changed relatively fast. Urlacher sat down with former NFL player Will Compton on the Bussin’ With The Boys podcast to talk about his career in Chicago. After discussing his time in college and the draft, the subject shifted to his rookie season. That was when the story came up. Believe it or not, Urlacher’s ascent into legend began after he got benched following an ugly performance in the season opener.
Urlacher: “After I get benched, I’m the 3rd down nickel ‘Mike’ linebacker.”
Compton: “Why did you get benched?”
Urlacher: “Because I sucked. I was terrible at ‘Sam.’ Terrible. I kept fucking up. I knew what I was doing but I couldn’t do it, though. Technique-wise, I was so bad. Then, 3rd down I was playing ‘Mike’, I was good to go, just run around whatever. Then in Week 2, we played Tampa and Barry Minter gets hurt (in) the 2nd quarter. Hurts his back. (Defensive coordinator) Greg Blache goes, ‘Go play Mike.’ I’m like, ‘I’ve never played Mike.’ He goes, ‘Just run to the ball. You know what Sam does. Fit where he doesn’t and just run to the football.’ And I started every game since then.”
Compton: “Dog, it was really like that? It was a conversation like that?”
Urlacher: “That was it. Greg was just like, ‘Run to the football.’ I’m like I can do that. And I did alright.”
It’s incredible how NFL history can turn on such small things like that.
Imagine if Minter hadn’t gotten hurt. He was a solid player for the Bears, dating back to the 1990s. He’d had the best season of his career the year prior. It is possible the team would’ve kept working Urlacher as a strong-side linebacker for the rest of the season if he hadn’t gone down. Instead, Minter’s exit allowed the rookie to flash his natural talent in the middle with four tackles, including one for a loss.
The following week Urlacher had 11 tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. There isn’t much else to say after that. It was decided he’d stay put while Minter was Wally Pip’d to the bench. That is another example of why NFL players are terrified of getting hurt. They know losing their job can be that easy.
Brian Urlacher would’ve been great anywhere.
He might’ve sucked at strong-side linebacker for a while, but his intelligence would’ve caught up eventually. It was never a talent issue. It was a technique issue. Once he mastered that, the rest would’ve been academic. In the end, it was destiny. The football gods wanted him at middle linebacker. That is where he belonged. Today Bears fans can’t imagine him playing anywhere else.
It will be interesting to see what awaits Roquan Smith. After four seasons as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, 2022 will mark his first as a middle in a 4-3. Many feel Smith has Hall of Fame capability too. He isn’t the freak of nature Brian Urlacher is, but his production, to this point, says he can handle the job well. With new head coach Matt Eberflus having an open-door policy for Bears alumni, it might be an excellent opportunity for the young star to pick the legend’s brain on what he must do.