As they half-jogged out to the practice field for the last day of full drills to start their playoff run against the Seahawks, the Bears’ linebackers moved together in a group.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was the man out front — and the only one bare-headed. He seemed oblivious to the 24-degree temperature.
He would strap on his helmet for work, not comfort.
Meaningful? Probably not.
Urlacher’s circuits aren’t loaded the same as mere mortals. Coaches and teammates recognize that Urlacher operates at a level reserved for the elite.
His return after missing all but the first half of the opening game of 2009 with an injured right wrist has left no doubt that the Bears’ have their leader back.
“It’s meant the world to us,” coach Lovie Smith said Friday afternoon. “Everything starts with him. He’s been the man around here for a long time. To go without playing football an entire football season and have your team back in the playoff — I know he’s pumped up.”
Any emotion Urlacher feels has not distorted his focus on Sunday’s matchup against the Seahawks in an NFC divisional playoff at Soldier Field. The Seahawks beat the Bears 23-20 in the regular season by declawing their defense. They didn’t give up a sack or a turnover.
“They ran it pretty well; they threw it when they wanted to,” Urlacher said earlier in the week. “I’ll trade them. They can have that one. We’ll take this one. The regular-season games are big, too, but these mean a lot more. You lose, you’re done. We’re in a good situation. We’re at home. We have a home playoff game. We want to take advantage of that.”
Urlacher feels healthier than one might expect for a player in his 11th season. He was hampered by neck and back injuries that limited his effectiveness before his abbreviated 2009 season.
He doesn’t feel like the 2010 season exacted the usual toll on his body.
“Our offense is playing pretty well, too,” he said. “They’re the reason we played so well the second half of the season. They held on to the ball.
“They converted third downs. We ran the ball, and they kept us on the sideline. My body feels great now.”
If it’s possible for a great player to make a comeback like a Stealth bomber flying a night mission, then Urlacher has done that.
Urlacher was Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 and was voted a starter for his seventh Pro Bowl in this comeback season, but his return has created little fanfare.
There was nothing to match Tom Brady’s comeback from the knee injury that wiped out his 2008 season.
Urlacher’s leadership is legendary among teammates and coaches.
When he steps into the defensive huddle, any complaining or chirping ends when Urlacher utters one word:
And everyone does.
“His play speaks for itself,” said Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. “But it’s how he commands the system, and the players are comfortable. All of them know to a ‘T’ that he’s going to get them aligned in the right situation.
“He’s going to make the right call. If something comes up that’s maybe not covered, he covers it.
“And they just know. He allows 10 other guys to play.”
Lance Briggs has played alongside Urlacher at outside linebacker for eight seasons and was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl. A reasonable argument can be made that Briggs is among the NFL’s best at his position.
Briggs was asked this week if he gained an appreciation for Urlacher by having him back this year.
Just the opposite, Briggs said. Absence made the heart grow fonder.
“I gained a lot of appreciation when he wasn’t here,” Briggs said. “The guys that filled in for him did a great job, but they’re no Urlacher. Having him back is huge.
“Having the pieces we have in this puzzle are huge. He’s the main piece.”