Briggs, Urlacher again look to next year

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The bitter sting of the 2011 Chicago Bears season seems to have numbed a bit for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, the reality likely having set in weeks ago and last Sunday's mathematical elimination from the playoffs more merciful than anything else.

With a combined 21 seasons nearly behind them, the veteran linebackers even had a rare chance for a laugh or two this week, justifiably enjoying news of their 14th and 15th Pro Bowl berths between them.

Briggs especially enjoyed when one reporter asked him Thursday if he thought the Bears got the message that, as promised, he did not allow his public unhappiness over his contract to affect his play and that it may have even enhanced it.

"Can you repeat that?" Briggs said, performing a pitch-perfect comedy routine in which he slowly repeated the question, then finished to raucous laughter when he turned the microphones on the podium toward his audience.

"I'm going to leave that as no comment."

It was annoying and arguably selfish when, in September, he made his contract a cause celebre with three years still remaining. But if any two players in the Bears locker room can be allowed to laugh in the face of misery, it is Briggs, 31, and Urlacher, 33, having suffered through more of it in than anyone on the current roster but nine-year-plus vets Patrick Mannelly, Roberto Garza and Charles Tillman.

And given that the two linebackers have been nearly perennial Pro Bowlers on a unit that has propped up its offense more years than not, you can give them extra agony points.

Each season they deflect the age issue and then validate that indifference by performing to a high standard.

"We can pretty much compete with any pair of linebackers in the league," Briggs said.

But with each passing year, the urgency to win intensifies, and rightfully so for Bears fans frantically counting birthdays.

"[You mean] while we can still walk around?" Briggs joked. "That's the most frustrating thing about seasons like this and last year, being that close [and knowing] we're a good enough team to get there.

"We were really hoping we could get into the playoffs and get [Jay] Cutler and [Matt] Forte back, but we didn't get it done, so we're going to have to reload and re-evaluate this season after we play and beat the Vikings [Sunday]. Evaluate this season and [go] back to the drawing board and take another shot next year."

But taken literally, that back-to-the-drawing-board stuff is not what anyone really wants, least of all two guys with 21 seasons between them.

"It wouldn't solve anything," Briggs said of wholesale changes. "It's not going to solve anything if you get rid of all the folks that put this team together. This year was unfortunate for us all. But even though we didn't get into the playoffs, we're a ... championship-caliber team, and we'll get there. It's just not going to happen the season of '11."

Urlacher was a bit more restrained, saying the Bears are "pretty close to being one of the better teams in the NFL."

He was also painfully honest in acknowledging the one giant obstacle in their way.

"We want to win the Super Bowl," Urlacher said. "It just makes it harder now because Green Bay's so frickin' good. They're in our division, they're the best team in the NFL the last two years, so it's going to be a big hurdle for us to get over. But there's urgency every single year to try and accomplish that goal."

Like their head coach, the two used injuries as an excuse for the late-season collapse a little more than you'd like, though given that their starting quarterback and running back went down, you get it.

"I mean, he's our quarterback," Urlacher said of Cutler. "You can't replace a quarterback. It's hard, especially in the middle of the season like that. He means so much to our team, running the football, throwing the football, making decisions, leadership-wise ... You never expect that to happen. It just caught us off-guard, I guess ... "

But losing five straight games and a playoff berth in the process is a team collapse, and Urlacher owned up to it, at least on the defensive end.

"The last two weeks, 38 and 35 points, that's not going to win very many games, I don't care who's playing quarterback for you," he said. "So you can say we did our job; we won't say we [did]. We haven't gotten any takeaways in two weeks (actually, one against Seattle resulting in a touchdown). No pressure on the quarterback. You're not going to win a lot of games doing that. At times we've held up our end of the bargain, but at times we haven't. We've got to help our offense out more."

And the offense has to be helped by a front office filling holes at wide receiver, exercising better judgment at backup quarterback and shoring up an offensive line that was wobbly even when healthy.

If the Bears hope to make another run at a Super Bowl with Urlacher and Briggs still playing at a high level, it's going to take a lot more work than anyone at Halas Hall seems to want to acknowledge, and some luck that you can never rely upon.

"We'll take another shot at it next year," Briggs said.

They always do.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.