By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) Brian Urlacher is still good at his job, as far as any of us know.
That seems to be the assumption we are all making, judging from the reaction to his recent extended absence from practice, and murky details regarding just what's really going on with his healing knee.
He's an all-time-great middle linebacker, and a likely Hall-of-Famer. More than that, Urlacher is an icon of an era for a heritage NFL brand, one famous specifically for stars at his position. Even now at 34, he was expected to be a useful cog in a good defense, with a chance to contend for a title.
But why are we assuming anything? Because of the usual, bland optimism from Halas Hall that's calibrated to soothe the masses? Because Lovie Smith says everything will be fine? Because we want to?
Remember how bad that injury looked when it happened, and how everyone had steeled themselves for worse news than the just the sprains of the MCL and PCL. No surgery needed, just rehab and time. It was believed that he had sufficient time to recover fully for the start of training camp.
He was out there with a brace on, and then he disappeared.
As cloak-and-dagger as it all seems now, there is a larger, simpler issue facing the Bears, and that's the fact that Urlacher has reached the point of his career where steep decline is possible at any time. There's a reasonable chance that Urlacher's production will drop off this year, anyway, since he's an old guy with heavy usage and a now-damaged knee.
Great as Urlacher has been, the defense in 2012 has to be able to succeed without him at peak effectiveness, even if he misses no games at all. It's the same guy in the same jersey, but it's just not the same player.
When we consider his value over his replacement, we have to stop flashing back to three years ago. The difference between that player and say, Hunter Hillenmeyer, was far greater than the difference between Urlacher now and whomever. A healthy Urlacher is better than Nick Roach, but there's no reason to assume any level of health or effectiveness.
Even if he is indeed able to return to the field this year, this would appear to be the beginning of the end. It's a particularly painful fact for an older player looking for one last grab at guaranteed money, but it's probably true.
This Bears defense will succeed if they pressure the quarterback and force turnovers, as has always been the case. Urlacher's previous absence was magnified by their inability to do those things. His coverage of the deep middle seam in the base Tampa-2 zone has been exemplary, particularly because of an underwhelming pass rush.
But Urlacher was not a game-changing impact player last year (zero sacks, zero forced fumbles, three interceptions in 16 games), and is not likely to be one this year, certainly not to his standards. Not even if they clean up that knee, and probably not even had the injury not happened.
That's not to take anything away from a great player or a great career. It's merely history and physiology.
The Bears can cross their fingers and hope that Urlacher is able to come back soon, but they need to be realistic about what that may look like when it happens, no matter the medical all-clear signals.
We can talk about the day the Bears eventually say goodbye to one of their best-ever players, and confront life without him as the game churns on as coldly and inexorably as ever. It is going to happen.
It may have happened already.
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