Too soon to say goodbye

CHICAGO -- If Brian Urlacher's career as the glowering face of the Chicago Bears is over, please alert Pat McCaskey.

I'm sure Urlacher doesn't want an Irish wake at Halas Hall, with a warbling McCaskey singing that funny Urlacher song, but we might need it for gallows humor.

"Urlacher, Urlacher, we hope you play forever," McCaskey famously sang back in 2008 when Urlacher won the team's Brian Piccolo Award.

Sorry, Pat, no one can play forever. Well, maybe Patrick Mannelly. But not Urlacher, who will always be the Ur-Linebacker to a generation of Bears fans.

Urlacher's football mortality has been a hot topic this year. His knee problems to start the season were seen as the harbinger for the end. Urlacher admitted his knee, which was injured in last season's finale and took all summer to heal, would probably never be the same.

It's a little depressing talking about Urlacher, who has represented this organization with aplomb, like a horse about to be put out to pasture (we're about the same age), but after a hamstring injury suffered late in the Bears' loss to Seattle on Sunday, the Chicago Tribune is reporting Urlacher will miss at least three games and maybe the rest of the season with a Grade 2 hamstring strain.

As if Urlacher weren't already running like Jake Taylor in "Major League."

With four games left before a possible playoff appearance, Urlacher could very well return rested and healthy for a playoff run. I'm sure that's what he's thinking.

Or he might not return ever. That's what a lot of Bears fans are thinking. I hope that general manager Phil Emery is thinking the same and being proactive and scouting linebackers for the draft. Even if Urlacher returns, and I hope he gets to go out on his terms, this team needs an heir apparent in the worst way. No offense to Urlacher's replacement, Nick Roach, or the recently re-signed Dom DiCicco.

At 34, Urlacher has hinted at retirement in recent years, though he's also expressed interest in playing after his contract expires this season. Who could blame him for wanting to hang up his spikes?

He's had back and neck injuries and now lower leg problems. He'll miss his friends and leading the locker room, but I think he'll be the kind of guy who blends into retirement. I bet he goes months without wearing any shoes or sleeves.

A life of jet ski rides, cable commercials and residual pain await a young NFL retiree. Urlacher, hopefully, has a happy post-football life, which is far from a guarantee given the health problems that often plague NFL players.

Urlacher isn't just the face of the Bears, but also the heart. Many Bears would say he's the best teammate they've ever had, a star who truly values his place in a team. Being one of the guys has always been important to Urlacher. That, and a few million dollars, would keep him going this offseason if he got a new deal.

There will be plenty of time to eulogize Urlacher's Bears career, if this is in fact the end. I won't believe it's over until I see a retweet from another tweet telling me a source close to Urlacher says it's over. So I'm willing to believe he can return this season.

This was billed and built as a win-at-all-costs run to the Super Bowl. Through the first nine games, the defense was chasing the ghosts of 1985, and while the offense wasn't putting up good numbers on a regular basis, there was rare hope thanks to Brandon Marshall's arrival. While the Bears have lost three of four, the defense hasn't been terrible, but last week's failures in the fourth quarter and overtime were amplified by the unit's recent success and our pessimism that it will continue.

The injuries have started piling up on both sides of the ball with attrition coming at shallow positions.

But with Urlacher expected to miss the next three, things could go south. Cornerback Tim Jennings, the NFL leader in interceptions, hurt his shoulder in the Seattle game. Receiver Earl Bennett suffered a concussion, Devin Hester is recovering from one and rookie Alshon Jeffery can't stay healthy. Lineman Lance Louis is out, and now the line is affecting the run game.

You wonder why Urlacher said he would lie about a concussion? At this stage in his life, it's about clinging to a job, even when you're an All-Pro. It's also about clinging to a season. No one wants to let their teammates down.

Urlacher's contract is up, and new general manager Emery might find it time to snag Urlacher's replacement in the draft or free agency. Or if the Bears implode down the stretch for the second straight season, Emery might sack Lovie Smith with a year remaining on his contract and go for a coach with a different kind of defense.

I would think Smith is safe, but the next four games are fraught with importance.

The Bears went 1-5 without Cutler to end last season, and this year they have lost three of four after starting 7-1. Urlacher went down in the first game in 2009 and the Bears limped to a 7-9 finish.

Three road games and a home game against Green Bay remain. Even without Urlacher, I think the Bears sweep their road games, lose to Green Bay and easily make the playoffs as a fifth seed. As a reward, they might be looking at a road game in New Jersey against the Giants. I don't like Chicago's chances, with or without No. 54.

They say athletes die twice, the first when you retire. I hope Urlacher gets off life support and rejoins the team. But no one should forget to ready themselves for the last rites of Chicago's latest, greatest middle linebacker.