Brian Urlacher turned to see Russell Wilson scrambling left to find an open receiver.
Like so many times in his career – thousands, maybe? – Urlacher dug his cleats into the Soldier Field sod and sprinted toward the opposing quarterback. But Wilson managed to get rid of the ball before Urlacher arrived, completing a 12-yard pass along the sideline to Seattle Seahawks teammate Doug Baldwin.
Like almost never in his career – a few times, maybe? – Urlacher limped off of the field in pain and swore to himself as he yanked off his helmet. He had injured his right hamstring on the play, and he watched from the sidelines one play later as Wilson found Sidney Rice for a game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Now, Rice’s touchdown seems like the least of the Bears’ concerns.
Urlacher could miss the rest of the regular season after he reportedly suffered a Grade 2 strain of his hamstring Sunday against Seattle. He is expected to miss at least three games because of the injury, and his status is uncertain for the Bears’ regular season finale Dec. 30 against the Detroit Lions.
After that comes the playoffs. Before that comes more questions.
Will the Bears make the postseason despite a recent skid?
Will Urlacher be able to recover without any setbacks?
Is it possible that the 34-year-old linebacker has played his final game for the Bears?
WHAT’S NEXT: SHORT TERM
Although Urlacher is not the dominant defender that he once was, he remains an integral part of Lovie Smith’s “Tampa 2” scheme.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound veteran leads the Bears with 88 tackles to go along with seven “stuffs,” seven pass break-ups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception return for a touchdown. His ability to drop into pass coverage in the deep middle of the field allows Lance Briggs and others to make plays.
While Urlacher is sidelined, look for Nick Roach to slide to middle linebacker and Geno Hayes to inherit Roach’s typical role at strong-side linebacker. The Bears also tried to bolster their depth at linebacker Tuesday by signing Dom DeCicco, who appeared in 16 games with the team last season as a special-teams contributor.
However, it’s impossible to argue that the Bears are worse off without Urlacher. He missed seven games because of a hamstring injury in 2004 and 15 games because of a wrist injury in 2009, and the Bears combined to go 7-15 without him on the field.
WHAT’S NEXT: LONG TERM
Urlacher’s contract expires at the end of the season, which means that he could test the free-agent market for the first time in his esteemed career.
He spoke about the issue in May during an appearance on WMVP-AM 1000.
“I think [Bears CEO and president] Ted Phillips said when they had the owners’ meeting, they’re going to wait until the season is over, see what happens, how I play,” Urlacher said. “It’s kind of exciting. I’ve never been a free agent. So, if I can get to free agency, we’ll see what happens. …
“I no doubt want to finish my career here. There’s no doubt about that. But you bring in free agency and all that, you just never know what’s going to happen.”
The answer will be up to both parties.
In May, Urlacher will turn 35 years old, which is well beyond the age when most NFL players experience a steep drop in production. If he seeks a two- or three-year deal, the Bears will have to decide how much he might contribute at ages 36 and 37.
Meanwhile, Urlacher must determine his top priorities before he signs what likely will be his final NFL contract. He has earned tens of millions of dollars and deserves to be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but he is 0-for-12 (and counting) in his annual quest for a Super Bowl ring. Will he want top dollar or the best shot at a championship? Can the Bears offer both?
For now, two things are certain.
The face of the franchise has a bad hamstring. And the quickest path to recovery involves rest, treatment, and a trip to the playoffs.