|Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs are key parts of a veteran defense. (US Presswire)|
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Brian Urlacher stood before a row of cameras for the first time since undergoing knee surgery with the body language of a man who would rather be doing anything other than talking about his knee surgery. But surely the veteran had to realize that after all of the intrigue about his absence from Chicago Bears camp for an extended period of time, the sudden news of his surgery would be a big deal.
In Chicago, where he is an icon and a linebacker link to the days of Dick Butkus, the game of Where In The World Is Brian Urlacher was becoming a daily exercise. He was in Los Angeles, being spotted in movie theatres, and wasn't anywhere near the tiny South Illinois campus of Olivet Nazarine University, where the Bears were conducting training camp. He needed rest for his knee. Any linebacker at age 34, as Urlacher is, would have some issues with knees at this stage of his career -- and, after aggravating it early in camp there was a daily countdown for the number of practices missed.
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"I tried to rest there," Urlacher said before the Bears' last full practice before breaking camp Friday for a return to Halas Hall. "I read in the papers I took 11 days off from practice, or 10 days off from practice, so I think that was the rest there. There was really no set time, just how it felt and how it reacted to treatment."
Now the only number Urlacher is fixated on is 9, as in Sept. 9, and the Bears' opener, at home against Indianapolis. No matter how reporters framed their questions on a rainy Thursday afternoon, or probed about the nature of his knee injury and the recovery, Urlacher generally brought everything back to his unwavering proclamation that he would be on the field with his teammates for the opener.
"September 9th, September 9th," he said. "That's all I care about. September 9th."
What's your timeline, Brian? "September 9 ... That's my goal. That's what we're shooting for."
Urlacher, his remarks often as gruff and direct as his throwback style on the field, wouldn't indulge in many details. It took longer to heal than he expected, he felt good at the start of camp, then the pain and the frustration mounted.
"It was a very minor surgery and there's only a couple of stitches in there," he said. "That's about it."
And as someone who plays with a ferocious streak on the field, why would he be inclined to reveal details of an injury that could make him more vulnerable to opponents? He was guarded, as any veteran would be, certainly one like Urlacher -- who has heard about his age, and injury history for years. That says nothing of the inevitable statements about him slowing down, and questions about how many years he has left playing his brutally demanding position.
Urlacher said that a collective decision was made to undergo the surgery on Monday night, after two weeks of assessing how the time off aiding his cause. He wanted to avoid surgery if possible, but this was reaching a point where if they were going to conduct a scope, better to do it with three weeks still remaining before the season.
"We decided as a team and as a training staff it was better to do [surgery]," Urlacher said. "So that's what we did."
The procedure went quickly and smoothly, he said, and he is already walking without a noticeable limp. But, again, with 13 years of experience, the Bears and Urlacher know that even a minor scope in August will require an altered schedule all season. Take no chances with this knee.
"I'm sure we'll have to manage it, plus I'm a little older now," Urlacher said. "In '04 or '05 I pulled my hamstring and I was back just a few days later that week. But I was young back then so we'll see how it goes now."
Urlacher himself brought up his age at times, passive aggressively. Clearly he bristles at the notion he is anything less than the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker he has been. No one knows if there will be a setback, of course, and the underlying issue to all of the inquires was: Are you still the same player, now, Brian? Without anyone coming out and saying it, whether it was a query about fans' concerns he will miss part of the season, or a question about whether he will practice, what everyone was getting at is if this dude can stay healthy all season as the Bears ride a crest of high hopes and playoff expectations.
The caveats to all of the Bears excitement are twofold:
• The defense is old in general and particularly in key spots with Urlacher (34, yeah, I mentioned it again), end Julius Peppers (32), linebacker Lance Briggs (31), defensive lineman Isreal Idonije (31), and corner Charles Tillman (31), all much closer to the end of their careers than to the start.
• Can the Bears keep Jay Cutler from getting murdered in the backfield, particularly with nothing resembling an above-average left tackle on the roster as currently constituted?
So the issue of age and health isn't going away.
Urlacher figures he will practice at most two days a week this season, getting extra time off. That's the kind of maintenance plan that makes sense for any veteran-laden club. Coach Lovie Smith isn't about being a taskmaster, anyway, but if his difference-makers on defense aren't sustainable throughout the 17-week grind, the Bears will be in trouble in the deep and talented NFC North, where guys like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford can carve up even the best of defenders.
Thus, even Urlacher's teammates are preaching patience with him.
"I hope he doesn't rush back," said corner Tim Jennings, a relative young pup around here at age 28. Jennings underwent a similar procedure a few years ago and said "I could have played in two or three weeks," after surgery, but, again, everyone heals differently at different stages of their career.
Urlacher threw kudos at his understudy, Nick Roach, ("He knows the defense, he is an athletic guy and our team trusts him," Urlacher said), but at this point it's going to take a crowbar of some sort, or a drastically unexpected turn for the worse, to keep Urlacher off the field when the Bears open at Soldier Field vs. the Colts, with the linebacker prepared to welcome rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to the NFL in his own unique fashion.