Big Decision: Bears and Brian Urlacher

Another in a series of important offseason issues facing NFC North teams:

If there were ever a time for the Chicago Bears to make a clean and relatively controversy-free break from their history, it's now. Parting ways with one of the best and most popular players in a franchise's history can be dicey, especially when he wants to continue playing, but the Bears' coaching changes provide them justifiable cover if they decide to move on from middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.

Urlacher will be a free agent in March, turns 35 in May and his best days are clearly behind him. He played 12 games on a gimpy knee last season and, according to our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF), had a below-average season at best. (PFF ranked him as its 44th-best inside linebacker in 2012.) But the Bears have no heir apparent on their roster, and had coach Lovie Smith returned for 2013, the team might have been tempted to squeeze more time from Urlacher in a scheme that perfectly suits him.

But new coach Marc Trestman hired Mel Tucker to lead what should be a different-looking defense in 2013. At the very least, Tucker is unlikely to run the exact Tampa-2 scheme that Smith installed in 2004 and was centered around Urlacher for most of the past nine seasons.

Trestman was notably non-committal on Urlacher's future during his introductory news conference, saying he wanted to study the team more closely. Urlacher is one of the NFL's most noted players over the past decade, however, and it's quite likely Trestman knows everything he needs to at this point.

"I've watched the man play for a lot of years," Trestman said. "He exemplifies what being a Chicago Bear is all about, and we all know that. When I step out of this room we'll begin to study, and I'll talk to [general manager] Phil [Emery] about where personnel fits on this football team and how it works. I need to be educated on that and I can't wait to get started."

Asked if he had a gut feeling on Urlacher's return, Trestman said: "I have a feeling that this guy has been a great player for this team, and I recognize certainly what he's meant to this locker room and to the fan base of the Chicago Bears."

I wouldn't disagree if you think that sounds like a coach paving the way for an honorable discharge. It takes considerable care to navigate the departure of a player in Urlacher's position, but it would have been a more difficult task for the Bears' previous regime than the Emery-Trestman duo.

With that said, the Bears would be jumping into the deep end of the swimming pool if they decide against re-signing Urlacher. That decision would require an immediate replacement be found, either in free agency or the draft or perhaps both. The worst time to fill a prominent roster spot is when you have to, as opposed to a year or more before it's mandatory. The Bears wouldn't have a choice in that scenario.

For that reason, we can't totally rule out a return. But at the very least, the stage seems set for someone other than Brian Urlacher to open the 2013 season as the Bears' starting middle linebacker.