On Jan. 1, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher sprained two ligaments in his left knee. In the 226 days that have followed, Urlacher has participated in six practices. The knee reacted so poorly to that limited exposure that it required surgery after two weeks of rest.
For me, Tuesday morning's surgery was notable mostly because it reinforced that Urlacher's condition was more significant than anyone -- including the Bears and the players -- ever thought. The question isn't whether he'll be able to drag himself onto the field for the Bears' season opener Sept. 9 against the Indianapolis Colts. It's how effective he can be while managing what appears to be a long-term maintenance issue, and how that will impact the team's defense.
Before the surgery, Urlacher told Fox Chicago that the injury will "probably" be an ongoing issue. He added: "I don't see it getting any better during the season. We have to manage it, my reps in practice, and then get through Sunday."
There is no surgery to speed recovery of sprained knee ligaments, which by definition are partially torn. Tuesday's surgery, called a "debridement procedure" by the team, typically cleans up bone and/or cartilage debris created by post-injury exertion. It removes the debris, lessening irritation, but doesn't address the reason the debris occurred in the first place.
So how will Urlacher prevent a similar occurrence while playing 16 games in 17 weeks? Will he practice once a week? Twice? And will the knee endure through the downfield running the Bears expect out of the middle linebacker position?
Urlacher is as tough as they come and there is every reason to expect him to gut this out. But while he can will himself onto a field, he can't prevent a drop-off in performance if the knee remains limited.
If anyone had expected such a setback, the Bears surely would have developed a more thorough backup plan than the one they've been forced into the past two weeks. Urlacher's absence creates an issue at two of the three linebacker spots; to this point, strongside linebacker Nick Roach has moved to the middle and reserve Geno Hayes has taken over Roach's spot.
Age 34 or not, Brian Urlacher is one of the Bears' most important players. The thought of nursing him through a full season, and dealing with the potential pitfalls, is daunting. When Urlacher walked off the field Jan. 1 after suffering the injury in the regular-season finale, I don't think anyone thought we would still be discussing it eight months later. Now, it is the most significant issue facing the franchise.