Greg Gabriel: Brian Urlacher was the total package
In my 30-plus years working in the NFL, I have been fortunate enough to work with some outstanding football players, including some of the best linebackers ever to play the game.
When I was with the New York Giants, we had the best LB corps in football for a number of years, led by two who would eventually become members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson.
Taylor, with his speed and edge pass-rushing ability, wrote the book on how outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme was to be played. Carson, the leader of that LB group, called the defensive signals and had great range to stop both inside and outside runs. That group helped the Giants win two Super Bowls in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells.
When I came to the Chicago Bears in 2001, they had a player who I would almost call the reluctant linebacker in second-year man Brian Urlacher. At the University of New Mexico, Urlacher played safety — and was a darn good one. Because of his size, many evaluators felt that Urlacher might be better off moving to linebacker once he got to the NFL. It was at the Senior Bowl in January 2000 that Brian got his first taste of linebacker play.
Urlacher was one of the most talked-about players heading into the 2000 draft, and the Bears were able to select him with the ninth overall pick. Shortly after the draft, Sports Illustrated ran a feature story on Brian and how he could possibly change the game because of his rare athleticism.
Urlacher struggled some as a rookie, but that had to be expected. When he was drafted, the Bears played him originally at the ‘Sam’ LB spot. Playing outside on one side of the field is much different than playing at safety or ‘Mike,’ which are in the middle of the field. Making reads, and how the game comes at a player is so much different. It wasn’t until the Bears moved Brian to ‘Mike’ linebacker later in his rookie season that he started to come on.
In Brian’s first four seasons in the NFL, he played in an entirely different defense than he did for the bulk of his career. The defensive coordinator on Dick Jauron’s staff was Greg Blache, whose 4-3 scheme was like a 3-4 with the defensive linemen two-gapping the offensive linemen, freeing up the linebackers to make tackles. In that scheme, Urlacher made a number of plays and was one of the better middle linebackers in the league. Although he showed dominating ability, he wasn’t able to dominate like he did once Lovie Smith became head coach and brought the “Tampa-2” scheme to Chicago.
When Lovie was in Tampa Bay on Tony Dungy’s staff, he coached one of the best ‘Will’ linebackers ever to play in Derrick Brooks. It was Lovie’s belief that, for his scheme to be efficient, he had to have a great ‘Will’ linebacker and an excellent 3-technique defensive tackle. We had the ‘Will’ ‘backer in Lance Briggs, and we drafted the 3-tech in Lovie’s first draft, first-rounder Tommie Harris. What Lovie was soon to find out was that, with a ‘Mike’ linebacker with Urlacher’s skill set, his great scheme could become even greater!
Lovie had never coached a middle linebacker with Urlacher’s natural traits. With Urlacher and Briggs playing at linebacker, we had one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL from 2004-2011. Urlacher wasn’t the ferocious ‘Mike,’ like Dick Butkus or Mike Singletary, but still made as many plays and could do much more for the defense as a whole.
It was actually Brian’s experience at safety that helped him become a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With Brian’s speed, range, instincts and pass-drop skills, he could control the middle of the field like no other linebacker before him. In coverage, Urlacher totally took away the center of the field, which made it much more difficult for opponents to run slants and crossing routes. Urlacher had rare receiver awareness and could close on a play like no one else. Teams figured out that in order to attack the Bears, they had to work outside or deep because they were going nowhere if they tried the middle of the field. Brian finished his career with 22 interceptions, a rare number for a linebacker.
Not only was Urlacher a rare player, he was an outstanding leader and an asset to the Bears off the field. During Urlacher’s time in Chicago, he was the leader of the defense. He wasn’t the fiery vocal leader — like teammate Olin Kreutz was for the offense — but more of a quiet, lead-by-example type. While he wasn’t very vocal, he would pick and choose when to speak, and when he did, you could rest assured that teammates listened.
I can honestly say that Urlacher was one of the hardest-working players I have ever been around. As good of a player as he was, Brian was always looking to improve. He would put in long hours in the weight room, both lifting and conditioning in order to make himself a better player. Not only did he work hard in the weight room, but he worked equally hard on the practice field. Brian knew that in order to be the best, he had to work harder than all the others, and that’s exactly what he did. That work ethic helped Urlacher have a very productive and successful 13-year NFL career and earned him a spot in Canton. No one deserves it more.