Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher understands that time is running out on his career.
He realizes the sense of urgency that faces his team and the questions that have resulted from the Bears' recent run of mediocrity. He also accepts that there are no guarantees of how much longer he'll be with the franchise.
"I'd like to think I could play as long as I wanted," Urlacher said. "But I also know that there aren't many players who get to make that call."
Although Urlacher doesn't admit this easily, this will be the most critical season of his 10-year career. He's rebounding from a 2009 campaign that ended when he dislocated his right wrist two quarters into a season-opening loss to Green Bay. He just turned 32 on May 25, which is an age when most players at his position show serious signs of decline. On top of all that, the Bears' coaches are under major scrutiny. One more disappointing season and head coach Lovie Smith surely will be looking for his next job come January.
There's little question that Urlacher has seen just about everything during his time in Chicago. But never has he entered a season in which there is so much to prove, for himself and for his teammates.
"Last year was disappointing because I felt like I had a good offseason and then I was out for the year," said Urlacher, who has been named to six Pro Bowls. "So to sit back and watch all season was really frustrating. But it was good to be back in minicamp [the Bears held a session this past weekend]. Normally, I dread this time of year. This time, I couldn't wait to get out there and run around with my teammates."
That feistiness Urlacher feels hasn't been contained merely to the practice fields. It also has found its way into the media. Urlacher made headlines in the fall with what many perceived as critical comments about teammates Jay Cutler and Matt Forte in a Yahoo Sports article.
He ignited even more controversy last week when he heard that Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers had uttered some unflattering remarks about this year's team. After Urlacher learned of the comments, he basically told the Chicago Tribune that Sayers shouldn't be talking negatively about current Bears because he had never won anything in his day.
Urlacher is more diplomatic about that response now -- "I've never won a championship, either, but I just don't want to hear that stuff from one of our guys," he said -- but it's fair to assume Sayers' remarks inflamed Urlacher's own frustrations with the Bears. Four years ago, this team was in the Super Bowl. Ever since that point, it's been hampered by injuries, shaky personnel moves, and a recent inability to hang with Minnesota and Green Bay in the NFC North. The arrival of Cutler last year was supposed to help matters. It wound up only providing upset fans with one more reason to be unhappy.
Right now, it's impossible to think that an offense that didn't make any major upgrades will be that much better, even with the arrival of new coordinator Mike Martz and his high-octane scheme. However, Urlacher is convinced the defense can raise its game. Despite the death of defensive end Gaines Adams in January, the Bears are relying on free-agent acquisition Julius Peppers to be the same Pro Bowl pass-rusher he was during his eight seasons in Carolina. If Peppers can do that, Urlacher's job will be that much easier.
So far, Urlacher has liked what he has seen from his new teammate. "You hear a lot of things about players when you're not on the same team, and you heard a lot about [Peppers'] work ethic," Urlacher said. "But I know he's worked hard since he's been here and I know he's going to help us a lot. When you put him down there with [defensive tackle] Tommie Harris, teams are going to have some issues. They're not going to be able to double-team everybody."
As for Urlacher, he feels confident that this year won't be marred by more health concerns. He's been working out ever since doctors removed his cast in the fall. He hasn't felt any issues from the arthritic back problems that plagued him in 2007. Although he has spent a decade in the league, he isn't willing to say the wear and tear has become harder to manage through the years.
But Urlacher also can see where his career is heading by taking a quick glance around the league. Brett Favre is no longer in Green Bay. LaDainian Tomlinson moved on from San Diego. The Philadelphia Eagles decided it was time to trade Donovan McNabb. All these players had built their legacies over many years with one franchise. They also all reached a point where their organizations decided it was time for them to go.
At this stage, Urlacher isn't willing to talk about how much longer he'd like to play or his chances of finishing his career in Chicago. He'd much rather focus on what he can do with whatever time he has left. That's because Urlacher knows his candor has created plenty of headlines in the past year. Now it's time to get back to letting his play do all the talking for him.
Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.