CHICAGO – As Brett Favre(notes) broke the huddle and led the Minnesota Vikings to the line of scrimmage in the second quarter of Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, Brian Urlacher(notes) got low to the ground, zeroed in on his target and prepared to pounce.
Unfortunately for Urlacher and his struggling team, the star middle linebacker was several area codes away from the Minneapolis Metrodome, where the 40-year-old Favre was working his magic against an NFC North opponent that at times looked helpless. Instead of staring down the future Hall of Fame quarterback, the Bears' injured defensive leader was spicing up a small gathering at his brother Casey's downtown condominium. As he watched the Vikings deal a near-fatal blow to his team's faint playoff hopes, Urlacher did his best to amuse himself amid the doom and gloom.
Crawling slowly across the hardwood floor, Urlacher snuck behind a leather couch where several female guests were watching the game on a flat-screen television. Just as Favre was about to take the snap, the linebacker reached for a young woman named Andrea, his shocking pink cast hovering above her shoulder. Simultaneously, Urlacher grabbed her and screamed, causing Andrea and her equally frightened friends to gasp while the men in attendance howled with laughter.
A few seconds later, Urlacher stopped smiling. Favre faked a handoff to halfback Chester Taylor(notes), then went back to him with a swing pass that resulted in a 10-yard touchdown and a seven-point Vikings lead they wouldn't come close to relinquishing. "Who's got him in coverage?" Urlacher asked, then answered his rhetorical question: "Nobody."
Later, as Minnesota rolled to a 36-10 victory that dropped the Bears to 4-7, Urlacher provided a two-word eulogy for a once-promising season that started to unravel when he dislocated his right wrist in a season-opening defeat to the Green Bay Packers.
"This sucks," he said just before turning off the television midway through the fourth quarter and heading north toward his Lake Forest, Ill., home.
During the 36 hours I spent with Urlacher between Saturday night and Monday morning, the 10-year veteran uttered a variation of that phrase on several occasions. To Urlacher, it sucks that his team is flailing, and it sucks that the coach he loves playing for, Lovie Smith, may lose his job because of it.
Most of all, it sucks that Urlacher, who's not even sure how he hurt his wrist in the season opener and was both stunned and enraged upon learning that the injury would keep him out for the entire season, is powerless to help his teammates fight through adversity.
"I just wish I could be out there battling," Urlacher said Sunday as he watched the Bears lose for the sixth time in seven games. "When I go to the facility and see the guys, I feel like I'm in the way."
As a result, Urlacher is living a strange existence that he likens, not happily, to "16 consecutive bye weeks." He spends home games on the sidelines trying to fire up his teammates, but when the Bears are on the road, Urlacher becomes a nervous, detached spectator, albeit one who is prone to playful pranks.
During our marathon viewing session on Sunday, Urlacher offered numerous insights on players and strategic wrinkles and provided a highly analytical perspective on the games we watched.
He also got intermittently emotional, screaming encouragement at teammates such as Hunter Hillenmeyer(notes), the man playing his middle linebacker spot who forced a pair of Adrian Peterson fumbles, and questioning officiating calls that hurt Chicago's cause.
Through it all, Urlacher grumbled about various elements of the Bears' undoing in tones that would have resonated with many of the team's fans. Most notably, he questioned Chicago's de-emphasis of its running game following last April's blockbuster trade that sent two first-round NFL draft choices, a third-round pick and quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) to the Denver Broncos for strong-armed passer Jay Cutler(notes) and a fifth-round selection.
"Look, I love Jay, and I understand he's a great player who can take us a long way, and I still have faith in him," Urlacher said. "But I hate the way our identity has changed. We used to establish the run and wear teams down and try not to make mistakes, and we'd rely on our defense to keep us in the game and make big plays to put us in position to win. Kyle Orton might not be the flashiest quarterback, but the guy is a winner, and that formula worked for us. I hate to say it, but that's the truth."
Urlacher's frustration is exacerbated by the high hopes he had going into the '09 season. Coming off a 9-7 campaign, Urlacher felt he was capable of playing at the level he did in 2005, when he was the NFL's defensive player of the year, and in '06, when he had another stellar season and led Chicago to its first Super Bowl in more than two decades.
Just because the six-time Pro Bowl selection is irritated, however, doesn't mean he's not having any fun. As I discovered in 2000, when Urlacher entered the league with a vengeance while earning defensive rookie of the year honors, life with No. 54 is never boring. On Saturday night we went from Joe's Stone Crab in downtown Chicago to the Bon V, the trendy club run by his brother, to a private blackjack table at the nearby Horseshoe Casino before I'd even taken the boarding pass out of my back pocket – and my notebook was already full of frantically scribbled material.
During the ride home, Urlacher dusted off one of his old tricks – the brake-and-scream-while-driving-on-the-freeway stunt – at my terrified expense. Given that I'd written about such a deception in 2001, I probably should have been a tad more prepared.
Watching football (and eating incessantly) with Urlacher on Sunday was a bit more low-key, but it nonetheless provided its share of highlights:
• After a long run by Ricky Williams(notes) in the Miami Dolphins' 31-14 defeat to the Buffalo Bills, Urlacher shook his head and said, "How amazing is Ricky? Honestly, he's the best back I've ever played against. He's so fast, so powerful, and so low to the ground."
• Just before the Colts' Peyton Manning(notes) threw a fade to Reggie Wayne(notes) for Indy's first touchdown against the Houston Texans, sparking a comeback victory, Urlacher exclaimed, "Don't blitz him, dumbass." When I asked him the best way to defend Manning, Urlacher said, "There is none – the guy's so good, and so aware of what's going on, that it's a nightmare. We beat them up [29-13] in last year's opener, and what we did was we showed blitz every single snap, no matter what defense we were going to play. … I wish we'd been able to do something to stop him in the Super Bowl [a 29-17 Colts victory in February of '07]. He killed us."
• Urlacher loves players who make the most of their talent, especially middle linebackers such as the Texans' DeMeco Ryans(notes) and the Colts' Gary Brackett(notes). He's not a big fan of players who draw attention to themselves on the field, especially when their accomplishments don't warrant it. After Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) showboated following a second-half pass breakup, Urlacher yelled, "Keep dancing, Dunta!" He was especially amused after Manning called for a quick-snap that caught Robinson and the Texans off guard on the next play. In the first quarter of the Vikings-Bears game, Minnesota wideout and former teammate Bernard Berrian's(notes) helmet come off after a hit from a Chicago defender, and Urlacher said, "Put your helmet back on, jackass." Upon watching a highlight of Chris Johnson's 85-yard touchdown run for the Tennessee Titans, Urlacher was amazed that Arizona Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) jawed with Johnson in the end zone. "What are you talking [expletive] for, Cromartie?" he said. "He just went 85 yards for a TD! What could he be saying? 'I'm just as fast as you'?" Late in the Bears game, when Chicago linebacker Jamar Williams(notes) put a hard hit on Taylor and began to flex, Urlacher exclaimed, "Good hit, Jamar – now go back to the huddle."
• Though several of Urlacher's guests noticed when the linebacker's ex-girlfriend, Jenner Evans, appeared in a Miller Lite commercial during the Bears-Vikings telecast, she was already off the screen by the time he looked up. "That's her three seconds," Urlacher said without animosity. He became far more excited when Prince was shown in a Metrodome luxury box. He also said of Smith, the embattled head coach to whom he is fiercely loyal, "Why is Lovie wearing a jacket? It's a dome!"
• After fellow linebacker Lance Briggs(notes) went down with what turned out to be a knee injury, Urlacher said, "I'll bet he's got some of that [synthetic] turf stuff in his eyes. That happens to Lance whenever we play on turf."
• When Cutler threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to wideout Johnny Knox(notes) in the corner of the end zone to tie the score at 7, Urlacher was both excited and impressed. "You see him do [expletive] like that, and you're like, 'That's unreal,' " Urlacher said. "I mean, there might be five guys in the league who can make that throw; it couldn't have been anywhere else. It was [expletive] sweet." He called Knox "one of my favorite rookies of all time. He's sensational; he just goes out there and plays. Even in training camp he didn't talk a lot. He played football and won our respect."
Allen had two of the Vikings' four sacks of Cutler.
• Urlacher has gotten some benefits out of his pink cast – "The girls love it; it's an aphrodisiac," he said – but he eagerly awaits its removal next Monday. "My wrist will be tiny, but it should be totally healed," he said. "I'll be fully rehabbed by the end of January. I still can't believe I had to miss the season because of this. When the doctor told me, I got very angry. It wasn't pretty." For now, Urlacher uses the cast as a prop when engaging in pranks: He peeled off parts of it and spent several minutes planting them into the blonde hair of Shane, one of the female guests at his brother's gathering, before she whirled around and yelled, "What are you doing?"
• He's as blown away by Favre's play as anyone. "He's the MVP, right?" Urlacher said. "He's got to be. That [expletive] is unreal, man. Sixty years old and doing all that [expletive]? It's crazy."
• Immediately after the Bears went down 36-10 in the fourth quarter, second-year Chicago halfback Matt Forte(notes) (eight carries, 27 yards) took a handoff to his left and was stopped after a two-yard gain. "Now we're gonna run that [expletive]!" Urlacher said sarcastically. Earlier, discussing a screen pass to Forte that was stuffed, Urlacher had said, "You know why that doesn't work? We don't make anyone [expletive] miss. I guess I just don't realize what great tacklers these [opposing defenders] are. They're amazing."
Once Urlacher gave up on the game and got back into his Land Rover, he sounded far less pessimistic about the state of his team.
"I believe in Lovie, and I hope I get to play for him for a long time," he said. "I really think we'll come back stronger than ever next year, and then everything will take care of itself. I know we have what it takes. I believe in this team, and trust me, I will do everything I possibly can to help us get better next season."
In the meantime, Urlacher has five more weeks of agony to endure, barring a highly unlikely playoff run. Munching on an "Urlacher roll" at his favorite Japanese restaurant Sunday night, he concluded, "Being injured [expletive] sucks, man. It's the worst. In '04 I missed seven games [with a hamstring injury], but I knew I was coming back. It was different. This is brutal. I want to be a part of the solution, but the reality is, I'm just a guy."
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• On Sunday night, Urlacher and I were watching highlights of the Titans' last-second, 20-17 victory over the Cardinals, and an announcer talked about the incredible performance of Tennessee quarterback Vince Young(notes), who had been written off by so many people after being benched at the start of the '08 season. "I'm one of 'em," Urlacher said. "I thought the guy wouldn't make it in this league. I was wrong. The guy is stepping up, big time." In leading the Titans to their fifth consecutive victory after a disastrous start, Young (27 for 43, 387 yards) was simply spectacular when it counted most. After taking over at his own 1-yard line with Arizona leading by four and 2:37 remaining, Young took Tennessee on an 18-play scoring drive that featured three fourth-down conversions – none of them via his feet – including the terrific 10-yard pass to leaping rookie wideout Kenny Britt(notes) in the back of the end zone that won it as time expired. Given a chance to play after the Titans shockingly lost their first six games, including a 59-0 debacle in New England, Young has helped Tennessee get back in the theoretical playoff mix, albeit with a scarily thin margin for error. Given that the Titans must face the Colts in Indy next Sunday, they're still a very, very unlikely postseason participant. That said, the stars do seem to be aligning for Jeff Fisher's team – witness the late scratch of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) due to lingering concussion symptoms, setting up a 2006 Rose Bowl rematch between Young and Matt Leinart(notes) that provided the day's greatest thrill. And even if the Titans fall short, they know they can once again build their future around Young – and Johnson, the fantastic halfback who had another sick (18 carries, 154 yards; three receptions, 32 yards) performance on Sunday.
• There was another quarterback who came through with a dramatic, potentially season-saving burst of brilliance, and this one was even less likely than Young: Atlanta's Chris Redman(notes), who took over when starter Matt Ryan(notes) went down with a toe injury early in the first quarter and threaded a five-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White(notes) on fourth-and-goal with 26 seconds remaining to give the Falcons (6-5) a 20-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I met Redman at the 1999 Kentucky Derby when he was still a junior at the University of Louisville, and I've watched him go through one of the weirdest decades any NFL signal-caller has ever experienced. Picked in the third round of the 2000 draft by the Ravens, Redman started six games in four years for Baltimore before suffering a serious shoulder injury. He was released after the '03 season and was later cut by the New England Patriots and Titans, and his NFL career seemed to be over. In January of '07 Redman signed with the Austin Wranglers of the Arena Football League, but when Bobby Petrino, Louisville's offensive coordinator in 1998, was hired as the Falcons' head coach, Redman hooked on with the team as a backup. Petrino didn't make it through the season, bolting to take a job at Arkansas, but Redman managed to stick around – and on Sunday he completed 23 of 41 passes for two touchdowns and looked very much like a legitimate NFL quarterback. On the winning play Redman's first read was tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes), but he chose to zing the ball to White, who made a terrific catch. After all he has been through, and with so much on the line for the reeling Falcons, do you think the situation was slightly stressful? "You don't even know!" Redman wrote via text Sunday evening.
• This has been a season of superlatives, and there was a whole lot of greatness on display Sunday. Let's all give it up for: Favre, who became the first NFL player with 500 combined passing (488) and rushing (14) touchdowns, played in his 282nd consecutive game (tying former Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall for the longest non-kicker/punter streak in league history) and came within 10 passing yards of his career high (402); San Diego Chargers halfback LaDainian Tomlinson(notes), who moved ahead of Marcus Allen and Edgerrin James(notes) and into 10th place on the NFL's all-time rushing yards list with 12,257; Manning, who passed John Elway (John Elway!) for third on the all-time pass-completions list with 4,137 and led Indy to its fifth consecutive fourth-quarter comeback victory, an NFL record, as the Colts (11-0) clinched the AFC South with five weeks remaining; and Johnson, who tied the NFL record held by Hall of Famers Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson with his sixth consecutive game of at least 125 rushing yards and who amassed the most rushing yards (800) in a calendar month of any player since 1970.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Was it just me, or did Texans owner Bob McNair look like he wanted to fire someone on the spot as he stood on the sideline at the end of Houston's 35-27 defeat to Indy? I can see how he'd be frustrated, given the intensity with which he has tried to build a winner and the level of disappointment he routinely experiences. The Texans (5-6) jumped out to leads of 17-0 and 20-7 before seeming to remember that a) they're the Texans and b) they were playing against Manning. In the second half Matt Schaub(notes) threw two interceptions and lost a fumble and Manning pretty much did whatever he wanted, and now coach Gary Kubiak has to be worried that McNair will begin wooing a man with a giant jaw before December ends.
• Before Sunday's Bears-Vikings game, I went on a rant about the Jacksonville Jaguars being the biggest frauds among playoff hopefuls. I think I might have called them "the worst 6-4 team in NFL history." Urlacher wasn't buying it – "They don't make their schedule, do they?" he asked – until I reminded him they'd lost 41-0 at Seattle earlier this year. In Sunday's 20-3 defeat to the 49ers, Jacksonville's first three possessions of the second half ended with a pair of David Garrard(notes) fumbles inside the red zone and a missed 21-yard field goal by Josh Scobee(notes). I'm sorry, but the Jags are not good. For the record, all six of their victories have come against teams with losing records (Texans, Titans, Rams, Chiefs, Jets, Bills), while only two of their five defeats have come against winning teams (Colts, Cardinals).
• While I'm railing against would-be contenders from Florida, how annoying are the Miami Dolphins? After finally clawing their way back to .500 following an 0-3 start, the defending AFC East champs looked capable of at least putting a scare into the Patriots leading up to next week's rematch in South Florida. But after Sunday's disappointing 31-14 defeat to the Bills (in which Miami was outscored 24-0 in the fourth quarter) dropped the Dolphins to 5-6, the Pats (7-3) can pretty much coast to the division title, even if they lose Monday night to the Saints and to Miami. With the Colts having already clinched the AFC South, the Chargers (8-3) looking much stronger than the Broncos in the AFC West and the Bengals (8-3) holding a two-game lead (plus tiebreakers) over the Ravens and Steelers and having completed a 6-0 sweep of the AFC North, could the division races in that conference be any more tedious? It's not much different in the NFC, either: The Cardinals should cruise in the West; the Vikings have all but clinched the North; and the New Orleans Saints could sew up the South as early as next week. Only the NFC East, with the Dallas Cowboys (8-3) holding a one-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles (7-4), holds much suspense. On a positive note, the wild-card races in each conference should be, well, wild.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Anything about Tiger Woods' version of the car accident that landed the golfing great in the hospital last Friday morning, including his assertion in a statement that "I will certainly make sure this doesn't happen again." (Huh?) But it's even less comprehensible that Woods could be romantically linked (via a National Enquirer report) to a woman, Rachel Uchitel, capable of giving a quote that makes her sound even more self-important than, say, a superstar athlete. "Although I've been romantically linked to a famous baseball player, a Broadway star, a musician, and various film and television actors, I will never kiss and tell!" Uchitel told BlackBookMag.com. "Some of the simplest things in life make me happy, and I want to end up with someone who truly loves and respects me for who I am. I have amazing friends and acquaintances that have been so generous to me, both personally and professionally, and they're part of who and where I am at this stage in my life. I'm lucky to get paid to just be who I am, and am so grateful to be surrounded by the people I know and love that I have met through work." Wow. Just wow.
2. That Sunday's Grey Cup was decided by a 13-men-on-the-field penalty, which isn't as horrific as it sounds (the Canadian Football League is a 12-on-12 affair) but is still a brutal way to decide a season. Trailing 27-25 in the final seconds, the Montreal Alouettes had kicker Damon Duval attempt a 43-yard field goal, and he missed – giving the Saskatchewan Roughriders an apparent second championship in three years. But the Roughriders were penalized 10 yards for having the extra man on the field, and Duval nailed a 33-yarder with no time remaining to give Montreal the stunning victory. I'm not complaining about the outcome – the Alouettes, who came back from a 16-point deficit late in Sunday's game, were the best team in the league over the course of the season with a 15-3 record, and I go way back with second-year coach Marc Trestman to his days as the 49ers' offensive coordinator. Still, my heart bleeds a little for Roughriders coach Ken Miller, who told reporters afterward, "The disappointment of this loss is going to affect us as long as we're on this planet."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
This one's for all you Patriots fans who whine that I only call out Bill Belichick for piling on in the latter stages of lopsided victories: How stupidly self-serving was the stunt Pete Carroll pulled at the end of Saturday night's USC-UCLA game? In a move that screamed "I am a classless egomaniac!" Trojans coach Carroll (who I generally think is a less-egregious offender than most of his peers. … But hey, this is a diatribe …) ran it up on his arch-rivals after Bruins counterpart Rick Neuheisel had the audacity to call a timeout in the final minute with his team trailing 21-7. I'm sure Neuheisel was simply trying to instill a never-quit-till-the-final-whistle mentality in his players, but to Carroll, this was license to play, "Who's Your Daddy?" On the next play quarterback Matt Barkley ran a play-fake and went up top to receiver Damian Williams for a 48-yard touchdown. The worst part was Carroll's smug, over-the-top, vindictive reaction on the sidelines, which predictably provoked a UCLA response (numerous players headed toward the 'SC bench area) that could have led to a massive brawl. Even worse, when questioned about the move after the game, Carroll gave this condescending response: "You're either competing or you're not. We've been saying it for years. We've been living it for years. If you really believe in competing, if you really do, you'll understand it."
Gee, Pete, I guess you operate on a higher plane of competitive understanding than the rest of us, and the mere act of questioning your sense of competitive justice is a misguided affront to your greatness. Except that, as I recall, it was only 14 days earlier on the same L.A. Coliseum field that you were completely undone by the impudence of Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, who had the audacity to call for a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter of a 55-21 butt-whipping. Reportedly, as you approached Harbaugh after the game, you barked, "What's your deal? What's your deal?" Well, so much for seizing the moral high ground, Pete. Now we all know your deal, and I guess it's something along the lines of, "How dare you run up the score on me? But if I do it to you I'll prance around like a sixth-grade bully and justify it as enhanced competitive comprehension." That's charming, and it casts the university that employs you in such a sublime light. Hey, wait, I just remembered – Carroll is a former Patriots coach. Oh well, I guess you Pats fans will have even more ammunition when you accuse me of hating your team and being a closeted Colts lover (as opposed to the Colts fans who claim I have a secret crush on Tom Brady(notes) and detest Indy, etc.).
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Ladies and gentlemen … Peter Carroll. And ladies and gentlemen … SC culture."
– Text Saturday night from KNBR-AM radio host (and my former Santa Rosa Press Democrat colleague) Brian Murphy, a very proud and irate UCLA alum