Sad but realistic end for Bears icon

CHICAGO -- Well, I guess the face of the Chicago Bears is now that guy with the glowering mug and mussed-up hair.

No longer is it the guy with the glowering mug and the bald dome.

It went official Wednesday evening, the moment some thought would never come, at least until next year. The face of the franchise, a designation that implies a mixture of experience and respect, Brian Urlacher, is gone, a victim of his own pride over what he called "somewhat" of a face slap of a contract offer.

This wasn't a surprise, but it's jarring to think about a Bears team without its middle linebacker. Feel free to take some time to drink in his career. Urlacher was the heir to a rich tradition at middle linebacker, the next generation of Butkus and Singletary. He was ornery and violent and liked to have a good time, and maybe he was a bit of a meathead. He was not a poet in cleats.

Chicago is a middle linebacker kind of town. Hey, even some of our quarterbacks threw like linebackers.

Thirteen years is a long time, though, enough for Urlacher to go from New Mexico athletic freak drafted ninth overall in 2000 to elder statesman with a fading gait. It was time. What would one more year have accomplished? With change all over George Halas' franchise, it's time to move forward.

To someone in their 30s, 2000 seems like just yesterday. But that's like four NFL lifetimes. Remember when barbed-wire tattoos were cool? Urlacher does.

They talk about Father Time in the NFL like he's the Grim Reaper, the Turk waiting to end your career. And Father Time Death Turk came for Urlacher on a very cold first day of spring.

Will this be a rebirth for the Bears' defense or the start of a decay? Too soon to tell.

What we do know is that without an unlikely change of heart on both sides, there's no more 54 in the middle of the Lovie Smith Memorial 4-3 Defense. No more Urlacher backpedaling or exploding, rerouting passes and whooping it up on the sidelines.

When it ends in the NFL, it ends. A Hall of Fame career doesn't get you much at first except a one-year deal that maxed out at $2 million, a tweet from the team account and a slapdash goodbye press release. There will be no goodbye tour. This isn't baseball.

Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune that the Bears gave him an ultimatum -- $1 million guaranteed with the potential to double it. He left it and will try to play somewhere else.

It's easy for me to say that sounds like a fair deal -- he won't break the bank on the open market -- but Urlacher had every right to demand what he deemed a respectful contract.

That doesn't mean the Bears should have to give it to him. Just another reminder the NFL is a cold-hearted business.

"It wasn't even an offer, it was an ultimatum," Urlacher told the Tribune. "I feel like I'm a decent football player still. It was insulting, somewhat of a slap in the face."

He later tweeted: "It was not a negotiation it was an ultimatum. Gonna miss my teammates."

And they will miss him. As one ex-Bear told me last year, Urlacher was everyone's favorite teammate. He was the ringleader of locker room pranks, of rookie get-togethers, of fight nights at his house. For as cranky as he could be with the media, or the booing fans, he was the complete opposite with his friends. Urlacher even admitted he acted like a "baby" about his last contract demands.

I can see Urlacher's point. Money is status in the NFL. You have to respect your own value.

At 34, Urlacher was welcomed to the reality that almost every NFL player faces. Eventually your team doesn't need you and you go from franchise icon to guy on the street.

"We thank Brian for all he has given our team and our city," team chairman George McCaskey said in part of his press release statement. "He will always be a part of the Bears family. We wish him the very best."

But, um, before you get inducted into Canton, remember to turn in your key.

It would be weird to see Urlacher in another uniform, but Peyton Manning is in Denver, Brett Favre ended things in Minnesota. The end of an NFL career, provided you're healthy enough to end it on the field, is a cash grab or a ring grab. If you're lucky enough, it's both.

But even if he never plays another down, don't feel sorry for Urlacher, who had a brilliant, rich career in Chicago. He's one of the lucky NFL players who has earning potential once he takes the pads off. I'll be watching his deodorant commercials when I'm old and gray.

Urlacher signed with Hollywood agency William Morris Endeavor last year, so I'm expecting a remake of "My Two Dads" where he plays the Dick Butkus role.

Urlacher played 182 games over 13 seasons with the Bears, but missed his last four games with a hamstring injury. He never fully recovered from a knee injury suffered in the last game of the previous season. It's easy to say the Bears were better with him on the field -- his experience at calling defenses and knowing where plays would go was valuable even when his speed dimmed -- but I trust general manager Phil Emery's gut on this one. You do too.

Urlacher was all-Chicago, All-Pro, a defensive player of the year, a Pro Bowler, rookie of the year, you name it. He's a guy you recognize without his helmet, the dude who dated Paris Hilton and Jenny McCarthy. There aren't too many Bears who elevate above their profession, but he had star appeal, even if he didn't like the downside of being famous.

But fame and friendliness don't mean much when you lose a step, and it's obvious that is what Emery and new coach Marc Trestman observed. When new coaches take over, turnover means more than a Peanut Punch. When Smith was fired, Urlacher's days were numbered.

Trestman and Emery said all the right things about Urlacher, but there was never a hint of promise that he'd be back. At the owners meetings in Arizona, Trestman said Urlacher could still help the Bears win, but left it up to management. By the day's end Urlacher was gone.

Emery never went out of his way to promise a deal would get done. He deserves credit for being the cold-hearted realist every team needs. George McCaskey couched his desire to see Urlacher back as the voice of his inner fan.

Because I love nostalgia, it's fun to listen to Bears fans list their favorite Urlacher moments. I know that soon enough Urlacher's animosity toward the team will fade and he will be welcomed back into the Bears fold, and like so many team legends, he will never leave Chicago.

That is to say, those annoying Comcast commercials aren't going away anytime soon.

I don't blame Urlacher for turning down a somewhat fair Bears offer, and I don't blame the cap-strapped Bears for not paying him on reputation.

It's bittersweet, I suppose, that a franchise great's career ended with a tweet from @chicagobears rather than on the field. But this is the NFL. Speed trumps nostalgia every time.