The man who wasn't there

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- On Day 6 of Brian Urlacher Watch, here is what I learned:

Urlacher took his second straight "personal" day.

There isn't much to learn watching an unpadded practice.

The Bears have a sponsorship with a soda, which includes a giant inflatable bottle of that beverage at training camp.

But forget about me. Let's talk about Urlacher, who missed his sixth consecutive practice Tuesday. Bears coach Lovie Smith said it was for personal reasons, not because of injury, but you know how it goes with football coaches and injuries -- they're lying only when their mouths are moving. Hey, it's part of the business.

That's why when Smith said there was a little concern about Urlacher's lingering knee soreness Sunday, that put everyone on DEFCON 54. Smith has a poker face that Doyle Brunson and Lady Gaga would envy. Just by acknowledging the question, Smith set off alarms.

"It's always a concern when you have an injury at the end of the year and you miss some time in the offseason," Smith said Sunday. "But he should be OK. It's not like he really hurt it any more. I assumed he would have some soreness and he would miss a few of these training camp practices."

Smith, sensing the interest of the local media Tuesday, squashed our questions early.

"I know a lot of you are asking about Brian Urlacher; he's been excused again for personal reasons," Smith said. "Brian will be our Mike linebacker again this season."

Well, there goes my Dom DeCicco shirsey investment.

In a season in which the expectations are Super Bowl or bust, the franchise linebacker's balky knee sure seems like a bad omen. Urlacher won't play in the preseason opener against Denver on Thursday at Soldier Field -- Nick Roach will start in his place -- which is not a big deal. Saturday's practice will be a telling sign of Urlacher's health. But even then, I wonder how the knee maintenance will hold up the rest of the season.

This is no offense to the man. Urlacher is Urlacher, the Ur-middle linebacker of the modern era.

"There's no reason to worry right now," Roach said. "Brian's not a guy you have to worry about."

Right. No one is worried about Urlacher's left knee, which he injured (sprained medial collateral ligament and partially sprained posterior cruciate ligament) in a collision with Major Wright during the meaningless season finale in Minnesota, but they all are thinking about it.

It's Brian Urlacher, after all. Fifty-four is 34, and while it seems like he'll patrol the middle of the defense until the end of days, no one beats Father Time. When does the end begin? Urlacher's contract is up after this season. No extension talks have been made public.

"At first, it wasn't too much of a concern on my part," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "I can only speak for myself. I always ask Brian, 'How you feeling? Are you going to go today?' Then you get a little concerned because you know how bad Brian wants to be out there and how hard he works to be out there. When you kind of don't see him out there after so many practices, it draws concern, just for the fact we care about him and we need that piece of the puzzle so badly."

Fellow cornerback Charles Tillman, who has spent his career with Urlacher, wouldn't admit to a Jennings-level concern, but you don't crack "Peanut" with easy questions like that.

"No, it's not disconcerting," he said. "I think Brian will be OK. He's a vet, a proven vet. He's got everything he needs to know mentally. It's just getting his body right."

You can throw out everything Tillman said before that final sentence. It's just getting his body right. How can anyone be sure about that?

Tillman is just being a good soldier, a good teammate. He sounds, well, like a Bears fan, a Brian Urlacher fan. He's assuming Urlacher will be fine, because they need him to be fine.

"I'm so confident he'll be OK; I'm not tripping or worried about anything," he said. "He's our leader; we're going to ride with him."

But the fact is, the knee is still sore. Urlacher never had surgery and took it easy during the offseason activities, and he's taking time off now. Training camp doesn't have much importance to a veteran such as Urlacher. This could be just another veteran taking off some hot summer days. It's not like he doesn't know the defense. And even if Urlacher has a scope, he could be back in a few weeks or months, hence Smith's comment, "Brian will be our Mike linebacker again this season."

But it's tough not to try to be prescient and wonder whether this is how it all ends. Small injuries, missed practices and everyone trying to convince themselves that Superman's cape can't be torn.