Why Brian Urlacher should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer

When Brian Urlacher announced his retirement in 2013, he declared Ray Lewis the greatest middle linebacker of all time.

Now, both have a chance to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the same year. Urlacher and Lewis are among 18 finalists announced Tuesday night for the Class of 2018.

In 13 seasons leading the Bears defense, Urlacher certainly had a Hall of Fame-worthy career. The only question is whether he will be a first-ballot selection along with Lewis, who is considered a slam dunk as a 13-time Pro Bowl selection, seven-time first-team All-Pro pick and two-time Super Bowl champion.

It’s rare for multiple players from the same position to be selected in their first year of eligibility. The only pure examples in the modern era are at quarterback with Troy Aikman and Warren Moon in 2006 and Dan Marino and Steve Young in 2005. Several offensive linemen were first-ballot selections in 2013, but Larry Allen was primarily a guard and Jonathan Ogden was a tackle. Guard Gene Upshaw and center Jim Langer were first-ballot selections in 1987, and defensive end Deacon Jones and defensive tackle Bob Lilly went in on the first ballot in 1980.

More than one linebacker has been inducted in the same class only once when in 2011 Chris Hanburger and Les Richter both made it as senior-committee nominations.

One finalist’s credentials could be diminished in the shadow of another at the same position, but Urlacher’s qualifications — 2005 defensive player of the year, eight-time Pro Bowl selection and four-time first team All-Pro — are undeniable.

Ten times since 2000, multiple first-ballot finalists have been voted in. The deciding issue for Urlacher, however, should be whether he’s one of the five best candidates in this class and not whether the voters are concerned with adding two linebackers to the 26 currently in the Hall.

“Brian Urlacher should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He is one of my favorites if not my favorite player … because he is hyper-competitive. He is a tough human and he does it the right way. He plays with a lot of passion, lot of grit and a lot of class. I always enjoyed our battles.

“What he did at the middle linebacker position revolutionized the game. Before him there hadn’t been a 6-4 guy that could run down the middle like that and run sideline to sideline and take the middle of the field away in their Tampa-2 scheme and come up and hit and tackle and run and sack and blitz and intercept. To me, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision for those voters to put him in the first opportunity they can.”

Former Lions fullback Cory Schlesinger was in his sixth season when Urlacher was a rookie in 2000.

“Holy smokes,” Schlesinger said. “He could run down the field like nothing else. He looked like a Chicago Bear linebacker was supposed to. It was always fun getting a chance to go against him twice a year and get tangled up in the line of scrimmage. He was one of those players when you are scouting their defense, you said, ‘We’ve got to look out for Brian here.’”

Packers coach Mike McCarthy admitted he’s not fully versed on the selection process but called the selection of Urlacher a no-brainer.

“When you look for a guy that is not only impactful from his position but what he’s done for his team (and) how he’s made other people around him better, I don’t know how he doesn’t get voted in on the first ballot,” McCarthy said. “I want to say that with gracious respect for everyone else that is trying to go in on that ballot, but I think he put together an incredible career.

“He was such a staple for so long. The game within the game against Brian. The mental part of it. You have great respect for what he did physically and that was a great scheme for him to be able to run and hit. Pre-snap recognition, the ability to be in tune with run/pass alignments, I mean that was a hell of a defense for a lot of years. Instincts. He had an incredible career.”

Colts coach Tony Dungy recalls working all week on the first play from scrimmage his team called in Super Bowl XLI. They wanted Peyton Manning to hit tight end Dallas Clark on a seam route and challenge the middle of the defense. Urlacher dropped and was able to jump and deflect the ball, even though Clark was 5 yards behind him.

“We worked and worked to simulate Brian in practice, but you don’t have a guy that tall and those long arms,” said Dungy, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2016. “He got a hand on the ball and we said, ‘That is the difference.’ That’s what we couldn’t simulate and that’s what you didn’t know until you played against him, the range and the amount of ground he can cover.”

Dungy is the one who popularized the Tampa-2 defense and as the architect he knew his friend Lovie Smith was inheriting a perfect chess piece with that scheme even if he’d never played with a dynamic middle linebacker.

“It’s funny I remember when Lovie got the job … I remember telling Brian, ‘You are going to love this defense. It is tailor made for what you do,’” Dungy said. “I had the same conversation when I went to Tampa with (Derrick) Brooks and (Warren) Sapp. The (Tampa-2) is going to let you guys be a factor in creating a dominating defense and I thought the same thing for Brian. He had the same kind of skill that Jack Lambert had, and I just thought it was going to be great for him, and it turned out to be that way.

“He did remind me of Lambert in the fact that this wasn’t a guy you were going to have to take out. He wasn’t a 3-4 inside linebacker that was going to stuff guards and play the running game. He can cover people. He can move. He can patrol the middle of the field in that Cover-2 and he can go sideline to sideline and make tackles.”

Dungy, however, wonders if Urlacher will hit a road block with Lewis in the same class.

“The (voters) are sitting there and you have Brian and Ray up,” Dungy said. “Are they going to put two middle linebackers in the same year? … I think he is going to lose votes just because of the year he’s come up. Doesn’t have anything to do with talent or ability and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether he should be in the Hall of Fame or not.”

They were very different players, but the impact they made was similar, Schlesinger said.

“We would go to Baltimore and that defense was nonstop motoring, and a lot of that is attributed to Ray and his presence,” Schlesinger said. “It got everyone fired up every single play. I think Urlacher had the same thing. The players really rallied around Brian, and he was the positive guy in that defense that players really had confidence in.”

After the vote on the eve of Super Bowl LII, Feb. 3, we will learn if Urlacher is indeed first-ballot material.

bmbiggs@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

Mike Glennon signing a big miscalculation, but GM downplayed it: 'We all felt confident in Mike' »

10 thoughts on the Bears' 5-11 season and what's next at Halas Hall »

David Haugh on Brian Urlacher's Hall of Fame bona fides »

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°