Insulted Brian Urlacher was given no choice but to part ways with Bears
To understand why an accomplished warrior such as Brian Urlacher would be so insulted by the way the Chicago Bears' front office approached his unrestricted free agency this month — and why I guarantee he'll channel every ounce of competitive energy he has into seeking redemption — it's instructive to flash back to a Ronnie Lott shower-power escapade, also known as the San Francisco 49ers' Coliseum Comeuppance.
Shortly after the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Niners suffered a painful home defeat to the New York Giants in the 1990 NFC championship game, the San Francisco front office had made some tough decisions, exposing the future Hall of Fame safety and star running back Roger Craig to something called Plan B free agency.
Essentially, the Niners were summoning their inner Michael Jackson and telling both veterans to beat it. Both did, signing with the Los Angeles Raiders. Then, in late September, Lott and Craig beat their former team, with the Raiders grinding out a tense, physical 12-6 victory in front of 91,494 fans.
Having dropped to 2-3 after losing to their former (and future) Bay Area rivals, San Francisco had issues. With Joe Montana sidelined by a season-ending elbow injury, replacement Steve Young had struggled against a rugged Raiders defense.
When a 49ers official hastily whisked the still-wet Lott past us and into the locker room, it seemed peculiar. Naturally, Lott still had lots of friends on the Niners, but why would he be rushing into their lair, practically naked, so soon after the game?
Later, we found out why: Charles Haley, the 49ers' prolific and capricious pass rusher, had not reacted well to the defeat. He went on a locker-room tirade against Young (among others), screaming, "Joe would have won this game in his sleep!" As coaches and teammates tried to calm Haley, he grew increasingly angry and emotional, at one point yanking an IV needle out of his arm, causing blood to spurt everywhere.
[Related: Brian Urlacher says Bears' contract offer was an ultimatum | Will not return]
Desperate to stop the madness, a 49ers official dashed across a Coliseum hallway in search of the one man he knew could control Haley: Lott, the 49ers' longtime defensive leader. Told upon reaching the Raiders' locker room that Lott was in the shower, the official was undeterred.
Informed that he was needed immediately, Lott grabbed a towel and quickly made his way to his old team's locker room, where he calmed Haley and defused the situation.
Suffice it to say, Lott walked back to the Raiders' locker room with a hearty measure of internal satisfaction.
I'm not saying Urlacher will enjoy a similarly fulfilling How you like me now? fantasy, or anything close to it. Possibly, the 34-year-old linebacker has played his last professional football game; the Bears might well thrive without him in 2013 and beyond.
I wouldn't underestimate the man, however. Will, drive and competitive wrath can go a long way in a sport as violent and irrational as football, and hell hath no fury like an enforcer scorned.
If Urlacher is given an opportunity to stick it to Bears general manager Phil Emery, the way Lott did to the Niners in L.A. and Brett Favre did to the Packers after joining the Vikings, don't be surprised if he hits that gap hard and delivers a resounding metaphorical blow.
In my mind, they'd deserve it.
I understand that football is a business and that Emery made a decision he believes was in the best interest of the franchise. And, of course, divorces like this are seldom (if ever) easy.
Yet the way the Bears handled Urlacher's departure contained elements of callousness and disrespect that will undoubtedly drive him in a way that few others can appreciate. And if you quarrel with Urlacher's conviction that he wasn't treated well in this situation, ask yourself this question: How else would you expect someone with his level of pride, commitment and intensity to respond?
Anyone who thinks the one-year, $2 million, take-it-or-leave-it offer the Bears made to Urlacher wasn't insulting is missing the point. It doesn't matter what the player's actual market value is or how much money that is relative to what people earn in other professions.
Urlacher was insulted. What the rest of us think is irrelevant. His opinion is the only one that counts and thus, by definition, the offer was insulting.
If the Bears had been above-board throughout the process, that surely would have helped. Urlacher still wouldn't have been happy that his employers valued him so little, but he'd have felt far less stung.
Instead, with Urlacher headed for unrestricted free agency, the team asked the linebacker's agent to submit a proposal, then waited several weeks to respond. Ultimately, after Urlacher failed to sign elsewhere, Chicago countered with an offer that the player would later describe to the Chicago Tribune as an "ultimatum."
"It really wasn't an offer," Urlacher said Wednesday on Sirius/XM NFL Radio, shortly after the Bears announced that his time with the franchise was finished. "It was either sign or we don't want you."
On Thursday, Urlacher told ESPN radio's "Mike and Mike In the Morning" that the Bears' public proclamations about wanting to retain him were "all lip service in my mind. They said that, but they never acted on it. It was like they all had a handbook on how to handle the situation they passed out around there."
I believe that Urlacher, whom I've found to be one of the more honest and candid men in his profession, has an accurate read on the situation. And if he receives an opportunity to extend his career with the Vikings or another NFL team, I expect him to be as motivated as an athlete can possibly be.
Money no longer is the issue. With players such as Lott and Urlacher, respect is paramount. Once a player and leader of that caliber feels disrespected by his employer, he'd play for free to prove that employer wrong.
During his conversation with Sirius/XM's Alex Marvez and Jim Miller, Urlacher even verbalized what so many proud athletes feel — and, if we're being honest, what so many of us in other fields would feel in a similar situation.
If the boss wants you to take significantly less than what you believe you're worth — and if a steep pay cut seems inevitable — you'd damn sure rather take less from a company other than your current one.
[More: Flurry of offseason departures not new to Ravens]
Yes, the Bears did offer Urlacher $2 million to play football in 2013, "which is a lot of money, don't get me wrong," he told Marvez and Miller. "But for me to go through a season, put my body through what it goes through during a season at my age, I'm not going to play for that, you know, not for the Bears at least."
No — he's going to try to do it for a team that gives him the best chance to show he's still got it, and that his former one made a mistake.
Twenty-two years ago, Lott delivered that very message to the 49ers — loud and clear and dripping wet.
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