By Jeff Risdon
Brian Urlacher retired on Wednesday, ending his 13-year career as one of the best middle linebackers of the Super Bowl era. He did so playing his entire career with the Chicago Bears, refusing to take a chance with another team and staying a Bear for life. Urlacher continued the long legacy of outstanding middle linebackers in Chicago.
His legacy is an interesting question. There is zero doubt that Urlacher will make it to Canton and get into the Hall of Fame. What is in doubt is how quickly he gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Urlacher is a notch below Ray Lewis, who also retired this year and will be eligible in 2018. Lewis was more widely publicized and lionized for a longer period, and he has two Super Bowl rings. Urlacher made one Super Bowl, a loss to the Colts, and has fewer Pro Bowls and All-Pro list appearances than Lewis. It’s almost inconceivable that the Hall will induct two players from the same position in the same year, certainly not first ballot players. The Hall strives, consciously or not, to avoid enshrining players from the same position in the same year to avoid direct comparison between the players. Middle linebacker isn’t the easiest position at which to get inducted, either. Harry Carson is the last Super Bowl era inside backer to achieve enshrinement, back in 2006, and only Carson and Nick Buoniconti have been elected to Canton from the position since 2000.
Also, there are many who feel that Urlacher was overrated for much of his later career. I lean perilously close to that camp myself. Part of that issue stems from being outshined by his own Bears teammate, Lance Briggs. It’s almost inarguable that Briggs has been the better player since approximately 2007. Urlacher rose up in 2010 with a superior season, but Briggs has been the more reliable, more consistent player for most of the last six years.
Voices of the media and players back this up; Urlacher has made just two Pro Bowls in that time, while Briggs has not missed a trip to Hawaii over the same era. Patrick Willis blew past Urlacher on the NFC inside backer pantheon, and London Fletcher remained far more productive for far longer as well. The knee and neck injuries took their toll on Urlacher’s effectiveness, and his loss of range robbed him of his greatest asset.
That doesn’t mean that #54 shouldn’t be remembered as an all-time great. He was the perfect middle linebacker for the Cover-2 defense. Nobody in the modern era had Urlacher’s ability to cover the deep middle of the field from the middle linebacker spot. He never lost the coverage instincts or acumen that reflected his background as a safety in his college years in New Mexico. This ability enabled the Bears to play their corners more aggressively and allowed the safeties to focus on outside assignments rather than a more vanilla deep middle look. In a way, Urlacher was a little ahead of his time. Teams desperately covet linebackers who can cover the flexed out tight ends and not get beat down the seam, or handle the multiple TE-as-receiver looks that are becoming increasingly en vogue. Urlacher did that better than anyone.
Urlacher was more than just a cover backer, however. He was an excellent pass rusher, particularly early in his career. Few linebackers were better at stuffing the A and B gaps against the run, even as his body continued to decline. While he was never great at shedding blocks, Urlacher had legit sideline-to-sideline range against the run and underneath passes. Urlacher was beloved by the fans for his workmanlike attitude and humility off the field. Defensive teammates loved this as well; he never threw his superior ability into their faces and handled all the oft-heavy criticism from the merciless, vicious Chicago media when their collective shortcomings hindered his greatness. The Bears defenders loved his unveiled enmity of Jay Cutler, who couldn’t be a more divergent personality as a football player and teammate. Urlacher was someone the regular fan genuinely believed could sit and join them for an Old Style at the corner bar to watch a Blackhawks game and inappropriately ogle the hot bartender. That’s perfect for Chicago.
I’m very pleased he chose to retire now, rather than try to eke out another substandard season in another uniform. The proverbial writing was on every wall. Lovie Smith is no longer the coach, and the Bears summarily told him his services were no longer needed. The free agent market was largely cool to Urlacher as well; nobody offered him the kind of money he expected, and few teams even gave him a sniff. The body just isn’t what it used to be, and it impacted his ability. It’s hard to go out like that, unwanted and on the down note of two seasons in a row of epic team collapses, but this is the right time for Urlacher to call it a career. There is definitely something noble and endearing about playing a great career all in one uniform, and Brian Urlacher did that just as Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary before him. Congratulations on a great career!
By Zack Levine
In 2009, the New York Jets hired the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens to become their head coach and drafted a promising young quarterback from the USC. The coach, Rex Ryan, built and coached a team that prided itself on tough defense and efficient offense. The quarterback, Mark Sanchez, played well as a rookie and looked to have a promising future as the leader of the Jets.
That year, the Jets would finish 9-7 during the regular season, good enough to earn them a wildcard spot in the playoffs. From there, the Jets relied on its unrelenting defensive play and power running game to carry the team through the postseason. The strategy worked, as Ryan’s club held the both the Bengals and Chargers to 14 points in the Wild Card and Divisional round, respectively.
The Jets finally met there match in the AFC Championship game in which Peyton Manning and the Colts proved to be too much to handle. Still, there was ample optimism for the Jets following the season and high expectations for both the team and its young quarterback in 2010.
The next season, Sanchez’s numbers improved. His interception total dropped from 20 to 13 and he threw five more touchdown passes than the year before. He and the even stingier Jets defense led the team back to the AFC Championship game after finishing 11-5 in the regular season. Again, New York failed to advance to the Super Bowl as they were thwarted by the Pittsburgh Steelers this time.
The following offseason, New York parted ways with veterans Damien Woody, Kris Jenkins and Jason Taylor. The Jets, who had been so strong up front on both sides of the ball, now had holes to fill. Although the team brought in young talent to replace it departed players, New York was never quite the same in the trenches.
The Jets’ real problem, however, began to reveal itself during the season. After showing so much promise during his first two seasons, Sanchez was no longer progressing as a quarterback. Instead, his decision-making ability seemed to be regressing. During the 2011 season, Sanchez threw five more interceptions than in 2010 and lost seven more fumbles. He was also sacked a whopping 39 times, many of which can be attributed to poor choices on his own part rather than shoddy protection from his offensive line.
After finishing at a very mediocre 8-8 during the regular season and missing the playoffs entirely, the crushing weight of the New York media and fan base began to come down on the team and especially on its quarterback. Football analysts and sports journalists began to question whether Sanchez had the intangible attributes that are so essential to a quarterback’s success.
Then, just when it seemed things couldn’t get much worse for the Jets, the 2012 offseason rolled around. New York failed to upgrade its roster and instead chose to rely on many of the same players from their 2009 and 2010 campaigns who were now past their prime.
In addition to failing to improve the roster, the Jets also decided to fill their open offensive coordinator position with Tony Sparano, formerly the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. It was a decision that made little sense, considering the Dolphins had one of the most anemic and bland offenses in the league when Sparano was holding the reins.
The dagger, however, came in the form of a trade. On March 21st of the 2012 offseason, the Jets acquired Tim Tebow from the Denver Broncos. What followed was a media storm that would create endless controversy and eventually drag the entire organization into chaos.
For all of Tebow's positive attributes, bringing him onto a football team when you have no intention of starting him immediately erases all of those positive things.
As soon as he stepped foot in the Jets’ locker room, Tebow was nothing more than a distraction. Bringing in a new, high-profile player to back-up a struggling young quarterback would have been a bad situation anywhere, but in New York, where it is impossible to escape the spotlight, the negative effects were magnified.
The Jets started out the 2012 season at 2-1 before dropping their next five of six. Sanchez was playing terribly. He wasn’t throwing touchdown passes and instead developed a habit of turning the ball over whether it was by interception or fumble. He looked uptight and uncomfortable in interviews, especially when asked about Tebow.
When it was all said and done, Sanchez finished the season with 13 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 8 lost fumbles, and a quarterback rating of 66.9. The quarterback’s inability to mentally handle the weight of the New York media and to steadily improve on the field was a flaw the Jets could not have recovered from. The team finished with a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
Now, the Jets have added another unstable quarterback through the draft and traded away their best defensive player rather than re-signing him. All of the credibility that the Ryan and Sanchez built during the 2009 and 2010 seasons has vanished as quickly as it arrive. The entire organization has become dysfunctional and unless changes are made quickly, Jets fans should prepare for another rough season.
New York Jets
By Jeff Risdon
I sat down here to do an initial 2014 NFL mock draft, but in the process of initiating that tedious task I found a problem. I struggled to figure out the order at the top of the draft. That got me to thinking: who is going to earn the ignominy of picking first?
A couple of obvious choices came to mind, but I decided to do a little research to clear my own biases. So I checked with a couple of different sports books to investigate the over/under win totals to get a better idea of what teams the professionals believe will rack up the fewest wins.
To no surprise, the lowest over/under number belongs to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Between a new coaching staff, their ongoing quarterback issues, the injury question regarding Maurice Jones-Drew, and top receiver Justin Blackmon’s suspension, the line is set at +/- 4.5 wins. That’s fair for a team in the early stages of a major overhaul from being a mediocre (at best) franchise for most of the last decade. The odds-on favorite to be the worst team seldom disappoints, and it’s almost inarguable that no team needs the No. 1 pick more than the Jaguars. The harder part to ascertain for the Jaguars is whether they would pick Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater or South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney. The optimistic Jaguars' fan can point to the tantalizing proposition of having either highly talented player while not finishing dead last.
The Jaguars are far from runaway favorites to be the worst team, however. Three other teams feature an over/under number less than six. The Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills and Oakland Raiders are all at +/- 5.5 or less, and it’s easy to see why the bookies set the low totals for those three.
I’ll be honest. The Raiders were the team I penciled in at the top of my list, and if I decide to get my gamble on this year, I’m going heavy on the under at 5. Oakland is suffering the unfortunate repercussions of the late Al Davis’ horrible mismanagement in his last few years, which caused a major depth chart purging. That has left the Raiders painfully short of talent at all sorts of positions. I don’t know how they are going to protect the winner of their QB derby (my early pick is rookie Tyler Wilson), how they will rush the opposing passer, or stop the run. If I’m Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, my choice at No. 1 in 2014 is Clowney, arguably the best defensive end prospect since Bruce Smith.
Buffalo is another strong candidate. The Bills face uncertainty at quarterback, where a battle royal between castoffs Kevin Kolb, Tarvaris Jackson, and incredibly overdrafted rookie EJ Manuel will slug it out to play behind a line that lost its best player in Andy Levitre. The defensive depth chart is also loaded with castoffs from other teams, disappointments like Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson, and Mark Anderson. Mario Williams and his massive contract is a huge albatross. The new head coach, Doug Marrone, comes from the college ranks at Syracuse and his NFL experience was with Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, and the high-flying Saints. He doesn’t have nearly that sort of weaponry in Buffalo, which could make the coaching curve a steep one. Also, the non-divisional schedule features the AFC North and NFC South, both chock full of dangerous foes. Still, the Bills do have appreciable talent at the offensive skill positions and in the secondary and could rise above picking in the top 10 if one of the quarterbacks (likely Kolb) steps up.
Cleveland also suffers from a lack of confidence in the quarterback, though at least they have a clear-cut starter in Brandon Weeden. The Browns also feature a rookie coach and are dramatically changing both the offensive and defensive schemes, which is often a recipe for hardship. I happen to think the Browns are going to cruise to at least 7 wins, but I buy the argument that they could tank with all the changes and pick at or near the top again. They would be picking Teddy Bridgewater if given the chance.
Then there are the outliers, teams which I could see plummeting under the right, or rather wrong and unfortunate, circumstances. The San Diego Chargers have already lost their 2012 1st round pick Melvin Ingram to a torn ACL. They have scads of underperforming high draft picks across the defensive front, and they have major injury questions at wide receiver and running back. The offensive line remains a huge problem even with taking DJ Fluker in the first round. But it would take a continued precipitous drop by QB Philip Rivers for the Chargers to earn the top spot. He’s well on that path, and if the new regime and team loses confidence in Rivers early, I can see this team bottoming out and selecting a new franchise QB in the next draft.
Arizona plays in a brutally tough NFC West, where the Seahawks and 49ers are, on paper, the two best teams in the NFC and the Rams are poised to make a big leap forward as well. They also have QB issues, taking a risk on Carson Palmer resuscitating his career behind a shaky OL (two rookies will start at guard) with no discernible running game to help him out. That combination pushed the Raiders to the brink of the first pick a year ago, and like the 2012 Raiders the Cardinals also have big questions in the pass rush department. The Cardinals are one of the few teams to already see betting line movement; Arizona began at +/- 6.5 and is down to 6 at one book and 5.5 at another. The big money sees impending doom. It will be interesting to see if new coach Bruce Arians can work the magic like he did with the Colts a year ago and keep this team from contending for the worst record in the league. Should the Cards sink to that depth, they would be wise to consider Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews as well as Clowney and Bridgewater.
And then there is the completely irrational choice, the shocking candidate that nobody expects to stink. My choice here is the Pittsburgh Steelers. No, I’m not hating on the Terrible Towels. It would take a fairly complex series of events for it to happen, but they are not all that improbable when taken separately. Say Big Ben gets hurt again and misses the bulk of the season. So does Troy Polamalu once again. Nobody steps up at wide receiver to replace Mike Wallace, and Heath Miller is unable to fully recover from his 2012 injury. They miss James Harrison more than expected, as neither Jason Worilds nor Jarvis Jones proves capable of more than 3.5 sacks and LaMarr Woodley has another disappointing season on the other side. The young offensive line fails to gel, a bad situation in a division loaded with excellent defensive lines in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and even Cleveland. If even half those issues, with Roethlisberger and the pass rush paramount among them, all converge, I can see the Steelers unexpectedly hitting rock bottom for a year. Of course the Steelers are currently at +/- 10 wins for a reason, and I highly doubt they finish with less than 7 wins again. But it’s not inconceivable. I have to think they would take Clowney even though he is a natural 4-3 end and the Steelers run a 3-4 defense.
Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Draft
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