Over the past several weeks Bears quarterback Jay Cutler made it known to new coach Marc Trestman and others in the organization that he sought to assert himself even more entering his fifth season in Chicago.
According to two sources familiar with those conversations, Cutler wanted control he never felt comfortable assuming in a locker room full of players loyal to Lovie Smith. To be Cutler's team truly, it couldn't be Brian Urlacher's anymore.
Be careful what you wish for, Halas Hall.
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The Bears created a leadership void Wednesday that Cutler will be expected to fill when they parted ways with Urlacher, a college safety at New Mexico who made himself into a Hall of Fame-caliber linebacker in 13 seasons wearing No. 54. On the Mount Rushmore of Bears middle linebackers, Urlacher's face would be chiseled next to the faces of Butkus, Singletary, George and Connor. A career that started on the fields of tiny Lovington, N.M., will end with an induction speech in Canton, Ohio, perhaps as early as five years after Urlacher retires.
But don't start the clock yet. If Urlacher's frame of mind Wednesday night serves as any indication, he will be driven to prove the Bears wrong. People who have seen Urlacher working out recently report he feels great physically and has every intention of playing in 2013. Urlacher believes good health and the benefit of an entire offseason of conditioning — things he didn't have heading into 2012 because of a balky knee — will allow him to play at a high level as a 35-year-old linebacker. Ultimately, the market will dictate where, if at all.
Around 5:20 p.m. Wednesday, the Bears made it official it won't be at Soldier Field. Within minutes of Urlacher turning down the Bears' take-it-or-leave-it, one-year, $2 million contract offer, the Bears issued a news release announcing "both sides have decided to move forward,'' according to general manager Phil Emery.
Thing is, Urlacher never agreed he was moving forward. He and his representatives thought he was turning down the Bears' offer and negotiations would continue. Later, Urlacher would call the Bears' move "an ultimatum.''
It all smacked of a face-saving offer the Bears knew Urlacher would reject. In truth, to describe contract talks the past few weeks as a negotiation would be inaccurate. The Bears set the market for Urlacher, who had more value to them than any other team, by making a single offer that guaranteed him only $1 million — $500,000 to sign and $500,000 to make the roster. The other $1 million represented Urlacher's base salary if he stayed healthy — barely above the minimum of $940,000 for vested veterans with his experience.
In the warped financial world of NFL superstars, offering a deal worth a maximum of $2 million represents the "slap in the face'' Urlacher hoped the Bears would avoid. They might have been better off making no offer at all to make a cleaner break.
Predictably kind words from Bears Chairman George McCaskey and Emery came after the news that should have surprised nobody. Throughout the process, the Bears publicly paid respect to Urlacher by saying all the right things, even though privately the team sent mixed signals. Trestman dropped a big hint recently when he told Urlacher he fit into the plans on first and second downs. For a linebacker who made a good living dropping on third downs into the middle of the Cover-2 defense, that foreshadowed Wednesday's finality.
"And then there was just ONE,'' tweeted Lance Briggs.
Briggs bid farewell to another starting linebacker last week when Nick Roach signed with the Raiders. Losing Urlacher hits Briggs and teammates harder, except perhaps Cutler, with whom he was not chummy despite appearances. Seeing the Bears defense without Urlacher will be like watching a Western without a cowboy.
People will applaud Bears for removing sentiment from the equation. But if Emery evaluated Urlacher based on 2012 game tape, he chose to ignore that Urlacher missed training camp and practiced once a week on a bum knee. If Trestman meant what he said at the owners meeting about wanting Urlacher back, his bosses didn't try hard enough to make that happen.
No, Urlacher wasn't the same player and his limitations last season became obvious. No, the linebacker Chicago saw in 2012 couldn't run like Brian Urlacher. Yes, Urlacher occasionally sparred with media and regrettably insulted Bears fans. But in a production business, the defense played better with Urlacher than without him. Expect the same to hold true next fall. That's not a romantic notion as much as a football evaluation.
What's the alternative, a rookie in the middle such as Manti Te'o or Alec Ogletree? It boggles the mind why the Bears would hire a defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, who plans to use the same scheme and verbiage for the sake of continuity and then push away the player who represented it. It represents a head-scratching risk for the Bears to discard a locker-room leader that threatens team chemistry for a first-time NFL head coach known to struggle connecting with players.
As one era ends, another begins. Ready or not, this indeed is Cutler's team now. Urlacher has left the building, with the slightest nudge, and the Bears never will be the same.