The year in Chicago sports has been defined by a very unwelcomed spree of carnage centered only on this city's most marquee athletes, so it's fitting that what started with a Super Bowl run deferred by a broken thumb to Jay Cutler will end with another one taking a significant hit thanks to a nagging hamstring injury to Brian Urlacher. Somewhere in between Marian Hossa was nearly murdered on the ice, four months of lingering strains and bruises finally added up to a devastating torn ACL for Derrick Rose and what had real potential to be an all-around successful stretch for Chicago's beloved professional sports teams was cut short ruthlessly and without warning. The Bears are still around and hold the chance to offer the city the ultimate redemption if they can cash in on their puncher's chance at winning the Super Bowl, but that chance appears to be getting slimmer with each passing week. The Bears are beat up, losers of three or four, and are now going to be without the man who acted as the Face of the Franchise for more than a decade in the closing weeks of the regular season.
Urlacher's name may still carry the most star-power on the Bears' roster, but he's more of a figurehead ruler than anything at this point. The Bears' most important player is Jay Cutler; their best player is either Julius Peppers or Brandon Marshall, maybe even one of their two amazing starting cornerbacks. Which isn't to say Urlacher is totally washed up because he isn't quite yet: Urlacher has given the Bears more this season than most probably expected; that he didn't miss a start through the first 13 weeks of the regular season is quite an accomplishment when you factor in all of the training camp hoopla surrounding his surgically-repaired knee. But even iconic, warrior-like athletes such as Brian Urlacher are only so strong, only so durable, and as the Bears enter the final four games of their season, they'll do it without No. 54.
Brian Urlacher has had an amazing career, really. He played all 16 regular season games in 10 of his first 12 years, has been selected to the Pro Bowl eight times and has a Defensive Player of the Year award on his mantel -- or wherever one keeps such a thing in their home. The only thing Urlacher hasn't done in Chicago is win a Super Bowl and it's perhaps the only accomplishment holding him back from joining the most elite sect of reviled sports stars in this city's history. Oh, I'm sure Urlacher hasn't paid for a meal in years and won't ever have to, but they'll always be that asterisk, that "...yeah, but" if he can't find a way to be apart of the Super Bowl champion this city craves.
It's fair to note that Urlacher's prognosis -- 3-4 weeks -- would have him back in time for the playoffs, but it's also fair to wonder if Urlacher's aged, beat up body will be able to recover so quick. The Chicago Tribune's Vaughn McClure talked to an orthopedic surgeon in California who did not make Urlacher's return sound promising:
"Grade 2 means it's not a complete rupture, but it's a partial rupture,'' Gialamas said. "It takes a while -- maybe a week to 10 days -- for the inflammation to stop. That muscle then has to heal, and then you have a lot of physical therapy for strengthening and stretching. The goal is to avoid as much scar tissue in the hamstring as possible.
"I'm thinking he would be lucky to come back in four weeks, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was longer than that. It's just a tough injury.''
This may very well be the end of Urlacher, and what a shame that would be. I found it surprising when the broadcast team last Sunday said Urlacher told him he would retire if the Bears won the Super Bowl -- that's the first I had heard of that, though the math certainly checks out. It's a sign that the amalgamation of injuries Urlacher has suffered throughout his brilliant career are taking a real toll, a toll so great that it might be enough to walk away from one last big paycheck when his contract ends after this season. Athletes as great as Urlacher have a tendency to hold on until the bitter end, usually with embarrassing results. Urlacher is only 34 years old -- young for a writer! -- but at a certain point bodily pain trumps competitiveness.
Urlacher might be ready to walk away. He has always been a bit of a party boy, a trait many historical figures have carried (see: Jordan, Michael) but unlike some of them Urlacher's competitiveness and desire never appeared to border on the maniacal. He is just a guy who had breathtaking talent and athleticism blessed upon him, and now those attributes are starting to fade.
Never was this more evident than during the Bears' rousing drubbing of the Tennessee Titans in Week 9, a time when Chicago's defense appeared to have the league's opposing offenses in a figure-four leg lock. The Bears crossed the 50-point threshold for the first time during my lifespan that week and Chicago fans invaded Nashville and drank the city dry. It was the high point in the season, but one that come with a subtle but sobering moment. Urlacher intercepted Matt Hasselbeck that afternoon and raced 46 yards for a touchdown. 'Raced' only in that men were chasing him. It was possibly the slowest pick-six I've ever seen and a clear-as-day reminder that Urlacher hasn't just lost a step, he's lost three. He would eventually reach the end zone and the party would continue but there was no denying that what was once maybe the NFL's single most impressive physical specimen had seen his superpowers drained substantially by Father Time. It's only inevitable.
So now the Bears find themselves holding onto the fifth of six seeds in the NFC playoff picture with four games left. Three of them are on the road, and the home game is against the Packers, but luckily the schedule isn't too imposing. Minnesota awaits on Sunday and the Vikings have lost four of their last five, but they did give Green Bay plenty of trouble last week as Adrian Peterson finished with over 200 yards rushing. The Packers follow and that's the game the Bears are expected to lose, though Green Bay is beat up too and certainly appears at least somewhat vulnerable. Then there's Arizona who has lost eight straight while boasting what might be the most helpless quarterback situation in the league, and the finale vs. a Lions team that can't seem to get out of its own way.
The Bears are 8-4 and can very well finish 11-5, but it won't be easy. Missing Urlacher hurts. Being without Tim Jennings, Lance Louis, Chris Spencer, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett doesn't help either. The Super Bowl often goes to the healthiest team, and the Bears are definitely not that right now. If Jennings and Urlacher can return and if the pass rush gets in gear again, the Bears still have a chance. It's looking like an increasingly small chance, with a road through the NFC that would likely require them to win road games at New York, at Atlanta and then at either Green Bay or San Francisco.
It's a long shot, but a shot nonetheless. A puncher's chance is really all a fanbase can ask for. It just can't be a good sign that as the end of this calendar year draws near, another rash of injuries has hit Chicago's most beloved civic ambassadors. It isn't fair, but life rarely is. If the Bears are going to give Urlacher the ultimate storybook send-off, it's going to require some real magic.