There comes a time in every NFL franchise's life when the face of that franchise changes.
It happened to Pittsburgh when Ben Roethlisberger was replaced by Troy Polamalu as the face of the Steelers. It's happening in Detroit before it even really began, with Calvin Johnson becoming the identity of the team instead of Ndamukong Suh. It almost happened in Denver last season with Tim Tebow. And it was about to happen in Baltimore to Ray Lewis with Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. But Lewis seemed to almost will himself back into our consciousness as the face of the Ravens.
(It happened when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach, to put it onto a larger, more universal perspective.)
Right now, it might be happening to the Bears. "As Briggs goes, the Bears go," seems to be the new saying running its own marathon throughout the city. But Lance Briggs is not trying to have or hear it.
When asked directly if he felt that he was becoming the defensive face of the Chicago Bears, the opposite of yes came out of his mouth faster than repeat champions with the correct answer can push the clicker on "Jeopardy."
"No!" he said before I was able to complete the question, making sure it was clear. Although he is arguably playing some of the best football of his career, although Brian Urlacher has crowned him "the best inside linebacker in the NFL," and although more people in Chicago are identifying him -- even with Tim Jennings being named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month -- as the heart and soul of this team, he's not falling into that trap just because he's currently the one player opposing offensive coordinators have the most problem containing.
To Briggs, his removal from that talk is necessary. At 3-1 and in the driver's seat of the NFC North, the Bears are simply where they are supposed to be. This is simply what the Bears are supposed to be doing. And he's staying in his low-key, often underappreciated and unrecognized lane.
"From Week 1 we're a more confident defense," he said about the team, not himself. "Each week you find success you find more and more confidence. I think that as long as the guys up front are rushing they're allowing us other guys to make a lot of plays. As long as that stuff is happening we're going to find success."
Not one word about his personal play. Not one word that would separate himself or label himself as the true identifier of the most offensive-minded defensive unit in the NFL.
With a defensive line that for the moment is one of the most respected in the game, the questions and concerns about the age of that line won't disappear. Even after Thursday's practice one member of the media reminded Briggs that he referred to himself and his defensive teammates as "vintage." If that's the inescapable truth that has yet to play itself out so far this season, then Briggs is a 1978 Veuve Clicquot while the rest are 1978 Korbel.
A level above.
Let's face it, Brian Urlacher is not Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers has not been Julius Peppers. At least not so far this season. Which has left Briggs to do the two things that no one else on the Bears could single-handedly do: Mute the "are they too old?" questions and stop the whole city from thinking about how much the defense is really m`issing without Urlacher or Peppers at 100 percent.
That current reality alone validates that it's time to finally hand Briggs the keys because he has officially become the player behind the wheel that can keep steering the Bears on their current course.
As you read this, Briggs is the one player this team can least likely succeed without. If this level of play is his new norm, he has proven that he is the Bears' Ray Lewis, their Clay Matthews, their Darrelle Revis, their Osi Umenyiora.
I know Lance doesn't want to hear this, but the truth sometimes hurts. Even when it's a celebration of his silent emergence.
"We give (Lance) the credit he deserves," Urlacher said. "Are you talking about you guys (the media) giving him the credit he deserves? I don't think we're too worried about that. He does it every week. He shows up and makes big plays. He stresses me out sometimes because he moves around so much before the snap and I don't know how he ends up in the right spot but he always does. He just makes big plays, makes tackles for losses, he's always there."
A player who is on the verge of transitioning from a perennial Pro Bowler to a perennial first-team All-Pro player. A player who is in the process of making a case for Hall of Fame induction once he retires. A player who has put himself in the early Defensive Player of the Year conversation along with Green Bay's Matthews.
A player who, with his imitation of Walter Payton on Monday night with his 74-yard errant interception/fumble recovery, had more impact in the Bears' victory over the Cowboys than all of the Jay Cutler/Brandon Marshall connects. A player who is not just currently leading the Bears in tackles, but has done so four times in his career. A player who, according to STATS LLC, leads the NFL in "stuffs," totaling 65.5 in keeping rushers at negative yards.
A player who should universally be recognized as the overall leader and best defensive player on the Bears. Who has quietly become the real face of the Chicago Bears. Whether he likes it or not.