(MCT) — Speaking to a small circle of reporters last week inside the Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall, Bears coach Marc Trestman struggled to be heard by anybody not close enough to read the label on his glasses.
Trestman’s voice didn’t carry strongly enough to get a yard on fourth-and-1. But it left an impression.
Chicago will judge Trestman by wins and losses, but until we learn more about the unorthodox but intelligent first-time NFL head coach, style more than substance shapes perception. The reality? That includes curious Bears players, most of whom wanted Lovie Smith to return and don’t really know Trestman beyond a news conference or phone call.
Unsigned linebacker Brian Urlacher fits awkwardly into that category.
As 50 Bears staff members headed Wednesday to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where they will begin considering draft picks and free-agents through Feb. 26, Trestman needs Urlacher as much as Urlacher needs the Bears.
For a new coach who initially could have trouble connecting with his most important audience — his team — cultivating Urlacher provides a natural bridge to credibility in the locker room. Nobody in there ever strains to hear what No. 54 has to say. Few teammates ever doubted him.
Urlacher’s endorsement would go a long way toward making Trestman’s transition from unknown to unquestioned. If Urlacher believes in Trestman early, teammates will follow. But if Urlacher isn’t in a Bears uniform for the first time after 13 seasons, it inevitably will put more pressure on Trestman to prove immediately the team is better off without a popular future Hall of Famer. The biggest loss of any first season for a coach can be the confidence of his players.
Neither Trestman nor general manager Phil Emery has given a strong indication he wants Urlacher to return. Both have been respectful but noncommittal. This should be a decision devoid of sentiment but not sensibility.
Videotape shows a linebacker in decline, a once-elite athlete who never really got into football shape in 2012 because of arthroscopic knee surgery and limited practice time. Privately, the Bears must wonder what an offseason devoted to conditioning Urlacher’s body instead of rehabilitating his knee in Germany might do for a player motivated to prove people wrong.
Weeks after Ray Lewis’ leadership played a major role in the Ravens’ successful Super Bowl run represents the wrong time to diminish what potential value a 35-year-old middle linebacker offers in intangibles.
How much will the Bears pay for chemistry? What is Urlacher worth?
Emery and Urlacher’s representatives will answer the latter question differently. Chances are, their shared interest in compromising will determine whether we have seen the last of Urlacher in a Bears uniform. Is a two-year, $7 million offer realistic? A face-saving, back-loaded, three-year, $14 million deal? The idea of Urlacher playing for the veteran’s minimum of $940,000, as some league sources have suggested, sounds absurd. On the other hand, Charles Woodson and Dwight Freeney currently are unemployed, so anything is possible in today’s NFL.
Lewis made $4.95 million last year — $2.55 million less than Urlacher. Forget the renovation project at 1920 Football Drive; restructuring contracts of Pro Bowl defenders requires the organization’s real heavy lifting. It all affects how much money remains for Urlacher, if any at all.
If the Bears apply the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton costing $8.3 million — they have no choice, really — it would leave roughly $2.7 million under the projected $122 million salary cap. Unless they rework the deals of defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman, that is. Peppers occupies 13 percent of the cap with a $16.38 million hit; Tillman eats up $8 million. They always could sign a long-term contract with Melton, who would be in high demand on the open market.
Leaguewide interest in Urlacher appears less likely. He has more value to the Bears than to the Cardinals, Cowboys or anybody — especially given how new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker apparently has embraced continuity.
Introducing Urlacher’s replacement would contradict Tucker’s message. Draft a linebacker — yes, even Manti Te’o if he’s the highest-rated player at No. 20 — and re-sign Nick Roach. But moving on without Urlacher makes little sense without a better obvious alternative — and please resist the silly idea of having Shea McClellin learn the position.
Wisely, Tucker plans to use a similar Cover-2 scheme and the same terminology. He seeks the same dynamic from a dominant defense that works. He seems to have set the table at Halas Hall for a certain middle linebacker.
If Emery wants to give Trestman one less thing to worry about at the first team meeting in front of players hanging on every word, the Bears will invite Urlacher to return to his familiar seat.