This is Brian Urlacher’s official explanation for his NFL retirement:
“Although I could continue playing, I’m not sure I would bring a performance or passion that’s up to my standards,” Urlacher wrote Wednesday when announcing his decision on Twitter. “When considering this, along with the fact I could retire after a 13-year career wearing only one jersey for such a storied franchise, my decision became pretty clear.”
This is what should be read between the lines:
Nobody was willing to pay me what I wanted so I’m calling it quits.
Urlacher shouldn’t be criticized for such thinking. In fact, what Urlacher experienced this offseason is just the start of a trend that will push more storied NFL veterans into early retirement.
There are teams that felt Urlacher still had enough in the tank to bolster a Super Bowl-ready roster for the 2013 campaign. The same goes for clubs that considered Urlacher a short-term fix while he helped groom their young linebackers to become top-flight professionals themselves.
Under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement, those franchises would have had more guaranteed money to offer because of the league’s sizeable salary cap increases each season. Teams could sign an older player like Urlacher to a multiyear contract knowing he wouldn’t play to the end of the deal. That squad could then comfortably carry the remainder of Urlacher’s prorated cap hit as “dead money” by spreading it over future seasons.
That isn’t nearly as attractive an option with the cap remaining relatively flat for at least the next few seasons under the new CBA agreed between the league and NFL Players Association in July 2011.
With scarce exceptions this offseason, the lucrative free-agent contracts were given to players projected to become stars like wide receiver Mike Wallace (Miami), guard Andy Levitre (Buffalo) and tight end Jared Cook (St. Louis) rather than those who have proven themselves as such in the past. Many big-name veterans in their 30s who were either released or became free agents have faced one of three difficult choices.
1. Ink a contract for far less than last year’s salary like safety Charles Woodson did Tuesday with Oakland.
2. Wait for a desperate team to come calling, a la outside linebacker/defensive end Dwight Freeney did with San Diego, which signed him last week after losing pass-rusher Melvin Ingram to a serious knee injury during a practice drill.
3. Retire and, as the late Paul Brown would say, get on with your life’s work like defensive back Ronde Barber recently did with Tampa Bay.
Urlacher also chose the latter, even though that wasn’t his intent in March when the Chicago Bears initially announced they were going to “move forward” without their defensive leader after 13 storied seasons.
The parting was based solely on finances. The Bears were initially willing to have Urlacher return. Urlacher told co-host Jim Miller and myself on SiriusXM NFL Radio that his agents had proposed a two-year, $11 million contract to Bears management. Chicago countered with a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of one year at $2 million.
Urlacher didn’t take it and the Bears began adding replacements in veteran D.J. Williams and rookie Jon Bostic.
“It’s a lot of money, don’t get me wrong,” Urlacher said in March. “But for me to go through the season and put my body through what it goes through during the season at my age. I’m not going to play for that — not for the Bears at least.”
Nor anywhere else either.
There are others who are willing to accept less cash than what they had been making to keep their NFL careers alive and stave off entering the real world. The late Junior Seau is the first example that pops into my head.
But this wasn’t just about swallowing pride to remain in uniform for someone like Urlacher, who had a $7.5 million base salary in 2012. It’s trying to determine exactly how much money is enough to justify putting one’s body through what players refer to as “the grind” of football life.
The game itself was grinding down Urlacher. So he could stay on the field when injured, Urlacher has admitted to HBO’s "Real Sports" that he frequently used the pain-killer Toradol and refused to acknowledge concussion symptoms. Urlacher’s problematic knee had made him a shell of the dominant middle linebacker he once was last season. Who knows what body part would be the next to go with Urlacher turning 35 on May 25?
Urlacher wanted what he considered fair compensation to partake in the demanding training regiments that would allow him to continue playing. It doesn’t matter that, according to www.spotrac.com, Urlacher has earned almost $80 million in football salary with the Bears. If he was going to pay the physical price to return to the field, Urlacher insisted upon earning more than the current market would bear.
Urlacher will remain forever associated with the Bears by walking away now. Another future Hall of Fame linebacker who retired earlier this year – Ray Lewis – will enjoy that same type of special affiliation after spending his entire career with the Baltimore Ravens.
Despite his iconic standing with the Ravens, Lewis would surely have suffered the same offseason fate as Urlacher had he not called it quits. Lewis, too, was a declining player commanding a sizeable salary on a franchise with cap limitations.
Lewis, though, left the NFL with the rare distinction of winning a Super Bowl title in his final on-field appearance. Urlacher never got to hold the Lombardi Trophy aloft. He didn’t get a farewell “tour” like Lewis did after announcing his retirement intentions entering the playoffs.
Urlacher has come to accept that. Other NFL graybeards must learn to do the same in what has increasingly become a what-have-you-done-for-me lately kind of game.