After the curtain closed on his remarkable 17-year career, Ray Lewis cried.
Lewis hugged his teammates on the Baltimore Ravens. He saluted fans in the stands. He hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy as a two-time Super Bowl champion.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether Brian Urlacher was watching.
Like Lewis, Urlacher has proved to be one of the most dominant middle linebackers of the 21st century. Like Lewis, Urlacher became the face of a proud franchise by playing old-fashioned defense during an era of offense, offense, offense.
However, unlike Lewis, Urlacher never has won a Super Bowl.
As he approaches his 35th birthday and officially becomes an unrestricted free agent, the time has come for Urlacher to chase his championship goal in another uniform.
It’s a tough decision, but then again, football is a tough game.
No one can argue Urlacher is one of the greatest players in the history of the Bears. He has been selected to eight Pro Bowls in 13 seasons and earned all sorts of accolades, from Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 to Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 to the Bears’ prestigious Ed Block Courage Award in 2011.
No matter what, Urlacher always will be a Bear.
He just might be a Bear who is on loan with another team for a couple of seasons.
It will be tempting for the Bears to keep Urlacher if he offers to sign a short-term, affordable contract. He hinted that familiarity was more important than money during an interview last week with the “Waddle & Silvy” show on WMVP-1000 AM.
“It’s going to be hard to not give them a discount because of my age, obviously,” Urlacher said. “Not a lot of teams are going to want to do a whole lot, I don’t think. …
“I’m not going to make what I was making in the past. How about that? Does that make sense?”
Yes, it does.
It also makes sense for the Bears to find their next great middle linebacker.
Anyone who watched the Bears last season saw an older, slower Urlacher than ever before. He struggled to shed blocks. He did not move side to side as easily as in years past. Even when he made a good play, such as his interception against the Tennessee Titans, he lumbered down the sidelines like a pickup truck with four flat tires.
At one point or another, almost every team has parted ways with a superstar.
Michael Jordan retired (again) from the Bulls in 1998, only to un-retire (again) and spend a couple of seasons with the Washington Wizards. Joe Montana made history with the San Francisco 49ers but played two more years with the Kansas City Chiefs. In the final at-bat of his career, Frank Thomas struck out as an Oakland Athletic.
These things happen.
Look no further than last season, when the Indianapolis Colts made the difficult decision to say goodbye to franchise icon Peyton Manning. The Colts had hired a new coach and new coordinators, and the new regime drafted Andrew Luck first overall while Manning signed a free-agent contract with the Denver Broncos.
Everyone benefited from the changes. Well, everyone except Tim Tebow, who was replaced by Manning and went on to become an undesirable on the New York Jets.
A similar transition period has arrived for the Bears.
Lovie Smith was fired after nine seasons as head coach, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli decided to join his friend, Monte Kiffin, on the Dallas Cowboys’ staff instead of remaining with the Bears. Longtime linebackers coach Bob Babich also left to become the defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As the Bears prepare for next season, Marc Trestman is the head coach. Mel Tucker is the defensive coordinator. Tim Tibesar will coach the linebackers.
A new era at Halas Hall presents an opportunity for a clean break between the Bears and Urlacher. However tough that might be, it will only become tougher if Urlacher sticks around for another season or two but struggles as his athleticism fades.
Urlacher is no dummy. He understands that the NFL is a business.
In a couple of years, Urlacher can return to Soldier Field for a ceremony in his honor and wave to thousands of grateful fans. He can watch as his Hall of Fame bust is unveiled in Canton, Ohio, where he is sure to be enshrined after his career is over.
In the meantime, the Bears must move on.
Unfortunately, not every Hall of Fame career comes with a storybook ending.
• Write to Northwest Herald columnist Tom Musick at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @tcmusick and @bears_insider.