Even during dispute, Urlacher ready to help Bears win

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brian Urlacher showed up. So did the rest of the Bears. But Urlacher was the guy drawing all the attention.

The Bears opened a three-day mandatory camp on Friday. Urlacher, in the crux of a contract dispute, says he understands mandatory. Says he gets his role with the Bears.

And what exactly is that?

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</center> Brian Urlacher has been compared to the 
Bears' great middle linebackers. He's quickly catching up to 
Hall of Famers 
Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus and Bill George in 
Pro Bowl appearances. 

Weight: 258

Seasons: 8

Pro Bowls: 6

Weight: 230

Seasons: 12

Pro Bowls: 10

Weight: 245

Seasons: 9

Pro Bowls: 8

Weight: 237

Seasons: 15

Pro Bowls: 8

Face of the franchise?

Just how does he feel about that oft-used description?

"There are so many guys here who are great guys and great players," Urlacher said. "Guys who have been around the league a long time. It's hard to put a tag on just one guy like that. I love Chicago. I love the big city. But, remember, I come from a town, Lovington, N.M., that only has 8,000 people. I've adjusted."

You have to give him that. He has certainly adjusted. And more.

Urlacher dug deep in creating his way to Chicago. To NFL stardom.

I remember the 2000 draft, talking to a few scouts about this player from the University of New Mexico who was shooting up the boards. He impressed scouts his senior season. He made them drool at the combine. But they did not know exactly what he was. Or how to use him.

I called an NFL personnel chief and asked him to read me his 2000 pre-draft scouting report on Urlacher.

It said: "Two-year starter in college. Runs well. Nice rotation of hips. Big tackler. Good enough to cover tight ends or running backs. He could be used as a strong safety, tight end, linebacker, H-back or wide receiver. I'd recommend safety or linebacker."

The result: Ninth pick in the 2000 draft by the Bears.

And this hybrid settled at linebacker. Smack in the middle, where Dick Butkus and Bill George and Mike Singletary once lived.

"I wondered if teams were going to find a place for me, but the Bears said linebacker right away," Urlacher said. "I tried outside linebacker first and I was terrible. Then inside seemed to fit me. This has been my cause here for a long time now. I'm under contract. We'll see where we go. But, you know, they say I'm getting old now. I'm 30 now. Time to retire, right?"

He is a long way from Lovington.

Urlacher is here.

I see very little chance he will not be here. Likely for the rest of his career.

He has given the Bears everything he has. They have given him a home, a career, financial reward and, in some ways, their franchise. Even in dispute, he showed up.

That means something here.

Rarely do you hear coaches and players in the NFL speak about one of their own like the Bears do when discussing Urlacher. I found a variety of them using words including "love" and "genuine" and "unbelievable talent" and "will give you the shirt of his back," when describing Urlacher.

Bears coach Lovie Smith had the final word.

"He will be family to me for the rest of his life. A great player, a great guy. A competitor. God-given ability very few of us have," Smith said. "Brian knows when it is time to work. There is a business side and a football side. These three days are the football side. He's here. I'm hoping there is some kind of solution where all parties end happy. I don't want our battles on the inside; I want our battles against teams on the outside. I expect him to have the best year he has ever had."

The Bears are not going to let Urlacher walk. Urlacher is not going to walk. I just cannot see it.

Not with all of that.

Urlacher signed a five-year contract in 2000 that was tossed for a new one in 2003, a nine-year deal that included a $13 million signing bonus. His salaries from 2008 through 2011 average $3.95 million per year.

Urlacher would like a one-year extension to 2012, a $4.95 million average salary and a $10 million bonus. The Bears have countered with a $5 million bonus, the $4.95 million average requested and a $9 million payout in that final year of 2012.

And that is where both sides stand.

Plenty of room to talk, to move, to meet.

To agree.

There are concerns about Urlacher's neck surgery earlier this year -- "minor" is the way he described it -- and back issues that plagued him last season. But he was running around in drills on Friday and looking fit and sound. Of course, there was no contact. Will he hold up?

Urlacher played hurt for much of last year and led the team in tackles (158) and interceptions (five). He had his first five-and-five interception/sack season, a staple of a complete linebacker, Smith says. The questions the Bears must ask and answer are do they still have the quality of player who was the 2000 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year? The 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year? The productive six-time Pro Bowler?

The man who belongs in the same conversation with Butkus, George and Singletary.

The face of the franchise.

"I feel great," Urlacher said. "We were 7-9 last year. I was disappointed in our standing. We thought we could get back to the Super Bowl and win it. We had many of the same group of guys. We're all committed here. We've got high expectations."

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