Bears LB Brian Urlacher's retirement forced in part by blow to pride

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Brian Urlacher said "Peace out" to pro football Wednesday, ending an iconic 13-year career that will absolutely lead to a bronze bust in Canton at the end of this decade.

In responding to a chillier-than-a-Windy-City-winter market for his services, I believe the great linebacker was, in essence, making another two-word statement to the NFL's 32 franchises, this one of the unprintable variety.

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Brian Urlacher hoists the George Halas Trophy after the Bears beat the Saints in the 2007 NFC title game. (AP)

Did you really expect Urlacher to go out any other way? Does it make sense that a fierce competitor, who once told me that after a game "win or lose I'm up all night" in a self-flagellating stupor, would let his storied career bleed itself to an undignified conclusion?

While Urlacher may well have arrived at this decision after considering a multitude of personal factors — including, most important, the state of his body, which has more cause to be broken down than virtually any other skeletomuscular structure that has worn a football uniform this century — a business-driven blow to his pride clearly pushed him in this direction.

As I wrote back in March, after the Chicago Bears announced that his unbroken run with the franchise that drafted him had ended, Urlacher felt insulted by the team's lack of interest in his services.

Two months later, with no other offer he deemed satisfactory, Urlacher decided to put a stop to the slights in the same abrupt manner in which he once stuffed opposing backs on inside handoffs three days before his 35th birthday.

[Related: Urlacher 21st century face of Bears]

In a perfect world, it wouldn't have gone down like this, and football will suck a little bit more without No. 54 roaming the middle. There are few superstars I've enjoyed covering more than Urlacher during the past quarter century, and he usually kept me laughing — from the first time we hung out in a driving rainstorm watching Division III football. That said, his grumpiness over the past few months was palpable.

Earlier this week, via text message, Urlacher told me he was "not sure if I want to [keep playing] or not." When I suggested we talk on the phone for a prospective column, he replied, "I don't wanna be written about."

Alas, after announcing his retirement via Twitter, he will not get his wish on this bittersweet spring afternoon.

I believe that had Urlacher been willing to hang tough, he could have landed a deal somewhere, likely for the minimum veteran's salary, plus incentives. He felt he was worth more, and it surely irked him to be perceived as a broken-down mercenary clinging to his last shred of gridiron glory, so shutting it down wasn't a terribly shocking call.

Like so many other veterans of this era — and particularly in the wake of the 2011 labor deal, which ushered in an era of flattened salary caps — Urlacher had to confront the inertia working against players of his advanced age, regardless of stature.

"That's the way this league is, especially now," one NFC general manager told me Tuesday. "If you're 30 or 31, and you're not running with the best receivers or taking down quarterbacks, or making big plays on offense, you're not getting paid. Period. Take it or leave it."

Some elect to take what they can and extend their careers, like 36-year-old defensive back Charles Woodson, who returned to the Oakland Raiders Tuesday for a one-year deal that pays him a base salary of $1.8 million, plus incentives that could earn him another $2.5 million. That was slightly more than Woodson likely would have commanded from another suitor, the Denver Broncos, whose championship prospects seem to be significantly more robust — another reminder that money's importance in these matters should never be downplayed.

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Brian Urlacher takes down then-Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper in 2005. (AP)

Urlacher wasn't even attracting that underwhelming level of interest, and though he could have stayed patient and waited for an injury (such as the torn ACL suffered last week by San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram, which prompted the team to sign veteran pass rusher Dwight Freeney), laying low was never one of his defining characteristics.

He handled his business the way he played linebacker: directly and ferociously, with a ton of swagger and not a whole lot of subtlety.

Almost exactly five years ago, when Urlacher felt he had outperformed the nine-year, $56.5-million contract extension he had signed in 2003, he expressed his displeasure by staying away from offseason workouts, telling me, "It's easy for people to criticize me for wanting [a new deal], and I understand that it's a contract and I signed it. But this is the NFL, and if I'd signed it and I'd played like [expletive], they'd have cut me or tried to get me to take less. In my mind, there's no difference. If they can 'break' a contract, I have a right to ask for more if I play well enough."

The stance was not a popular one in the Windy City, and Urlacher wasn't above playing on the fans' heartstrings. "They're killing me in Chicago," he said. "I think I should just go ahead and retire."

Back then, Urlacher had leverage, and he knew it. This time, from the start of free agency on, he knew he was fighting a losing battle.

Urlacher has never been a good loser — even when he was watching his team stink it up on TV, and venting accordingly — and he wasn't willing to extend this game another few months, at the risk of further frustration and assaults on his dignity.

I'll miss covering and watching him, but I completely understand his decision. For one thing, he can always renege — or, as it's known in NFL circles, pull a Favre — should an agreeable situation present itself, the way it just did for Freeney.

[Listen: Michael Silver on where Urlacher ranks among greatest Bears]

And even if Urlacher stays retired, he can begin a healing process that will ultimately get him to a much better place. Six years and three months from now, Urlacher will likely take the podium in Canton to the robust delight of a large contingent of Bears loyalists, and a modern-day Monster of the Midway will be given the love he richly deserves.

In the end, that will mean more than the money Urlacher didn't get offered to play a 14th season — and this great competitor will surely be at peace with his place in football history.

Yahoo! Sports slideshow of Brian Urlacher through the years:

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