Teaching old Bears new tricks

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It is pointed out to Brian Urlacher, gently of course, that he is getting old.

Normally, he might not appreciate this astute observation except that it comes from someone older than him and as a gaggle of rookies stroll by, he cannot deny the obvious.

"Now they seem really young," he groans. "Twenty-one, God, I can't remember when I was 21."

At 31, Urlacher is not exactly ready for the early-bird special. He also can list a few older Bears who spring to mind: Adewale Ogunleye, 31, Olin Kreutz, 32, Patrick Mannelly, 34, and the oldest, Brad Maynard, 35, which seems to make him feel better.

"I still don't feel like I'm that old," says the 10th-year middle linebacker. "I definitely don't act that old. But we're getting up there and we can't play forever, we know that. The window is probably closing a little bit, but this is the best team we've had since I've been here."

It is pointed out to Urlacher that he says this every year.

"I know I do, but I truly believe it this year," he says. "Position for position, you look at our team and we match up well with everybody. People say we don't have any receivers. We'll see. I think all those guys have something to prove, but I think we stack up well with everybody."

On the practice field later, Kreutz stays after the final horn to work with some of the younger linemen. The longest-tenured Bear, along with Mannelly, at 12 seasons, Kreutz somehow looks younger this summer, more energetic, definitely in a better mood.

This is pointed out to him.

"Any time you have a lineup with the caliber of quarterback Jay [Cutler] is, I'm not knocking anybody I've played with, but I've never had anybody of that caliber, so of course I have a little extra hop in my step," Kreutz confirms.

The extra work, he says with a grin, is as much for his own benefit as it is for his young teammates.

"I learn from them," he says. "A guy like Chris Williams, with all his talent, he reminds me what position I should be in. At his young age, he can bend his knees and move his feet, and he reminds you what you're supposed to do."

Although experience does not translate to continuity on the offensive line for Kreutz, he gets upgrades in talent with Williams and Pace. Urlacher has lined up at linebacker with Lance Briggs for six seasons; and on defense with Alex Brown for seven, Charles Tillman for six, Ogunleye, Tommie Harris and Nathan Vasher for five -- among others.

But chemistry? Say the word and Urlacher looks as if he had something bad for lunch.

"You can be as close as you want, you can go out all the time and hang out with your buddies, but if you don't play good, it doesn't matter," he says. "We've always been really close, but we haven't played good lately. There have been years where we didn't get along so well and we played great.

"I don't know what chemistry is or what it's supposed to be like. All I know is we have to play good together on Sunday."

Although playing under head coach Lovie Smith for the past five seasons provides a certain comfort level, the position coaches have changed so frequently that even the old guys feel like rookies.

Brown, for example, has had five defensive line coaches in his seven seasons -- six if you count the time Richard Dent put in.

"I've learned something from all of them. You try to put all that together. You try to understand it," Brown said. "I guess it could be hard for a young guy. I don't like it, but if it's not working, I want it fixed. And if I have to go through that, after what we've been through since my career started, then I'll go through it again if we're going to get to this guy [defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the fourth Brown will have played under]. I'd much rather have had him my first year, but that's OK."

Marinelli rebuffs the theory that veteran players are somehow easier to coach.

"That's where you get yourself in trouble," he says. "With a veteran player, you go back and just about coach him like a rookie because you don't want to miss anything. Or, in our system, maybe you're an inch too high or your step is elongated a little bit too far. It's all the base fundamentals, just like a golfer. A great golfer practices fundamental swings every day."

Brown has had no choice but to change with the times.

"Some of the stuff, you'll play a position and you'll do something one year and then the next year that coach will come in and tell you why all that's wrong," he says. "And then you have to rewind because if you want to play here, and you're not fortunate enough to have a coach that's there your whole career, then you're going to have to change, you're going to have to do some things different. You're going to have to rewire yourself, for lack of a better term."

Rewiring is something with which all the old guys are familiar. But winning -- Urlacher has had only four of those seasons in his nine years, and it's almost enough to make an old guy cranky.

"I'm the only guy left from my draft class," he says wistfully. "Mike Brown and I were the last guys left. It goes by so fast, it doesn't seem like it's been 10 years for me. …

"There are just no excuses this season for us not to do well. People can try to say this or that, but unless we have guys get hurt, there's no reason we shouldn't be good."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.