The book on Lovie Smith is still being written, but as the leader of the Chicago Bears enters his ninth season with higher expectations than ever, aspects of his legacy already feel safe. We'll remember Smith for leading the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, for the construction and installation of his signature Cover-2 defense, for the distinct Texas drawl in his voice. He'll also be remembered for his favorite sentence construction during times of distress.
"Rex is our quarterback."
"Kyle is our quarterback."
Bears fans can hear Smith repeat these words with the excitement of Eeyore in their sleep. The acquisition of Jay Cutler before the start of the 2009 season granted Smith solace at his franchise's longtime trouble spot, but the Bears coach showed he'll still resort to his old trademark when the going gets tough. Case in point: the continued training camp absence of star linebacker Brian Urlacher, who missed his sixth consecutive practice on Tuesday afternoon.
Faced with a gaggle reporters armed with microphones, recorders and notebooks, Smith stared bluntly at their faces and repeated this sentence: "Brian will be our mike linebacker and all kinds of other things out there."
If that doesn't set off the alarms, what will?
Urlacher sprained the medial collateral ligament and partially sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the Bears' Week 17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings to end last season when he collided with safety Major Wright. And here we thought all that win did was ruin Chicago's draft pick. Hardly!
It feels premature to exhaust too much energy over Urlacher's health woes and how it could affect this highly anticipated season. Urlacher enters 2012 at 34 years old, every season spent with the Bears. If anyone can stand to miss a few training camp practices in August, it's him. But if the knee injury No. 54 opted not to have offseason surgery on really does linger into this season, the Bears' Super Bowl aspirations certainly hang in the balance.
Urlacher described his team as 'stacked' before training camp opened and it didn't feel like precarious boasting. The Bears just may have been 'Offseason Champs' after trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall and bolstering their depth by signing quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush. But Urlacher's bold proclamation only holds water if the defense remains intact. It starts with him. Brian Urlacher is essentially all the Bears have known in the middle of their defense for the last 12 seasons. Without him, it's entirely possible Chicago's lofty dreams could crumble.
If there's any stake in the eye test, I'm not sure Urlacher can pass it at this point. I've been in Bourbonnais to cover Bears training camp the last two Sundays, and Urlacher steps are decidedly wary. This might not be the same bit of foreshadowing as Greg Oden limping up to the podium after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, but it isn't an encouraging sign. No. 54 simply means too much to this defense. He is its pillar.
Lance Briggs talked about Sunday about the defense without Urlacher. Nick Roach slides from the strong side to the middle in Urlacher's stead. It isn't a good look. Briggs talked about how soft-spoken Roach tends to be. This is disconcerting when playing a position that requires you to bark out plays. Briggs told reporters something to the effect of "God didn't bless Nick with a middle linebacker's voice". Roach isn't about to disagree. When beat reporter Zach Zaidman asked him about playing the middle, Roach responded "I would rather Brian do it."
So would everyone, Nick. The middle is Urlacher's throne, the latest in a proud lineage that boasts icons like Butkus and Singletary. We tend to romanticize the past and the future over what's happening in front of our own eyes, but make no mistake: Urlacher is every bit as worthy of canonization as the two Hall of Fame inductees who played the middle in Chicago before him.
Now the Bears and their fans wait with bated breath. The Bears have the potential to make this a very fun football season in Chicago, but the absence of Urlacher would make for a very unwelcome handicap. There's no reason to freak out just yet, but the sight of No. 54 on the Bourbonnais practice fields, dawning a helmet and shoulder pads instead of a bucket hat, would certainly go a long way towards quenching a civic football nightmare.
Ricky O'Donnell is the editor of SB Nation Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com.