Did Urlacher call it quits too soon?

Brian Urlacher was an impact player at times last year, as evidenced by his Pick-6 against Tennessee. AP Photo/Joe Howell

Brian Urlacher didn't wait around to see if a market for his services would ever develop, but up until Wednesday when the middle linebacker announced his retirement, many in league circles believed it was only a matter of time before a team signed the soon-to-be 35-year-old defender.


Because certain NFL talent evaluators, including the Bears' front office, were of the mindset that with a healthy offseason of training under his belt, Urlacher still had the potential to be an effective player in 2013.

Former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said two weeks ago on ESPN 1000's “Chicago's Gamenight” that he expected interest in Urlacher to start picking up after June 1 when teams are in a better position to free up additional salary cap space before heading to training camp in July.

"Absolutely, I absolutely would (take a hard look at Urlacher)," Sundquist said. "Now, is Brian Urlacher the same guy he was a number of years ago? No. But he brings a savvy, an understanding, an instinct and a hard-nose style of play that you can build around. I look for players at this particular point in their career to raise the level of other players around them. So yes, I would (take a strong look at him)."

But Urlacher didn't sound comfortable with the prospect of just being an OK player this fall. When a person achieves a level of greatness at his or her profession over a long period of time, anything less than great results are usually deemed unacceptable.

Urlacher conceded to ESPN 1000's “Waddle and Silvy Show” that his problematic knee “felt great," but he seemed to partially base his decision to retire on the reality that he would never be the same player he was before the injury at the end of the 2011 regular season.

“My knee feels great, finally,” Urlacher said. “This is the first I got to work out and not just do rehab. ... But I can look at myself in the mirror and say 'There's no way I'll be the player I used to be, or what I think I need to be out there.' Mentally? Yeah, I have it. But physically, I'm not what I used to be. There's no doubt about that. My knee is never going to be the same. I saw that last year, even when I started getting better. I'll never be able to move like I want to. ... I can't do what I want to do and it's frustrating.

“We talked to every team in the NFL, and maybe in July or August it would have happened, but I'm not going to wait. I want to be somewhere where somebody wants me. I don't want to go somewhere where, 'Oh, so-and-so got hurt, we need you.' I don't want that to be the situation.”

That's an understandable reaction from a player who achieved incredible success over a decorated 13-year NFL career and is financially set for the rest of his life, especially after his long-time head coach Lovie Smith got fired on December 31 -- Urlacher said he would “one-hundred percent” still be in a uniform if Smith had a head coaching gig in 2013.

But let's address the white elephant in the room: was Urlacher really that bad in 2012?

Outside of Baltimore's Terrell Suggs, can you name me another veteran player who could miss essentially the entire offseason and training camp due to a knee injury, show up cold Week 1, and still record 88 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles and return one interception 46 yards for a touchdown?

Urlacher shouldn't be chastised for his performance last year. He tried to pull off the impossible and actually got better as the year wore on before the hamstring injury versus Seattle prematurely ended his season with four games to go.

The greatest gift a player can receive is the chance to go out on his own terms. Urlacher sounds content and at peace with his decision, and in the end, that's what matters. But it doesn't sit well with me that Urlacher's final NFL play ended with him limping off the Soldier Field turf after the second-to-last snap of an overtime loss to Seattle.

In my mind, with a healthier knee, Urlacher starts 16 games and posts 100-plus tackles for some team in 2013. And who knows, maybe the team that ultimately would have signed Urlacher wins the Super Bowl and he goes out like the champion he is.

Guess we'll never know. And for me, that's kind of difficult to accept.