At last, now the Bears know they’re without eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher for the remainder of the preseason.
The on-again, off-again availability of the face of the franchise had left everyone wondering about the severity of his knee, which was originally injured in last year's season finale. Now we know it's bad enough that it required a scope on Tuesday morning, but the hope is that the procedure will allow him to return healthier for the regular season.
Urlacher, his teammates and Bears coaches still believe he can return in time for the regular-season opener. There is no guarantee he’ll be 100 percent by then, but many players return in 2-4 weeks from similar minimally invasive surgeries.
Urlacher was back on campus at Olivet Nazarene University early Tuesday morning, just hours after his surgery, and he was walking without a limp.
Former Bears guard Tom Thayer, now the color commentator for WBBM’s radio broadcasts of Bears games, had five arthroscopic knee surgeries. He said he returned “as soon as the stitches came out,” after some of the scopes. Thayer said former Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong played in a game at Florida four days after having his knee scoped.
The Bears’ opener against the Colts game is Sept. 9, 25 days away.
At least until then, strong-side linebacker Nick Roach will continue to play in Urlacher’s spot, with veteran unrestricted free agent Geno Hayes taking Roach’s old spot. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound Roach is an undrafted free agent out of Northwestern. He has started 45 games over the previous four years, including three at middle linebacker when Urlacher missed 15 games with a dislocated wrist.
Hayes started 42 games for the Bucs over the past three seasons. But neither brings the leadership, experience or big-play ability that Urlacher has provided, since he was drafted in the first round in 2000.
“Roach is doing a great job of filling in,” defensive tackle Henry Melton said. “But it’s Brian Urlacher, so we’re definitely going to miss him.”
Roach has been getting coaching from Urlacher over the past couple weeks and will continue to do so. Although he expects the team captain to be back for the start of the regular season, Roach said the defense can remain effective without him.
“We feel good about our group,” Roach said. “Obviously Brian is a big piece of it, but we have a lot of good players in the room.”
While Hayes is new to the team, he played in a similar Cover-2 scheme in Tampa the past four years, so his transition has been fairly smooth.
“Geno’s a playmaker,” weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs said. “I can’t wait to see Geno on the field and what he brings to the table. He’s very instinctive. He’s a ballplayer and that’s the reason why he’s running with the ones right now.”
Until Urlacher returns, the Bears will lean even more heavily on Briggs, the seven-time Pro Bowler, who has led the team in tackles three of the past four seasons.
“I just need to be me,” Briggs said. “Whatever leadership comes along with me being me is what I’m going to do. Just like (Charles) “Peanut” (Tillman), we’re already leaders. We lead in our own way, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
The procedure Urlacher had is essentially to clean out foreign particles and/or irritated cartilage and is considered minor. It was done to help relieve the swelling and soreness in Urlacher's knee and was performed by Bears doctors Gordon Nuber and Mark Bowen.
Urlacher sat out the entire off-season program while recovering from the MCL and PCL sprains he suffered in last year’s season finale in Minnesota. He participated in the first four training camp practices but hasn’t practiced since July 31.
“He’s a competitor, and in his heart he wants to be out on the field playing football with the rest of us, and it really tears at him that he can’t do that right now,” Briggs said. “But it’s a very long season. We have 16 games of getting to the playoffs in order to get ourselves into a position to play in the Super Bowl to win the thing.
“That’s what we have to keep in perspective is what’s most important.”