CHICAGO — Brian Urlacher wanted to re-sign with the Chicago Bears.
Instead, they’re parting ways with the veteran linebacker after 13 years.
General manager Phil Emery said Wednesday that the team couldn’t agree on a contract with Urlacher, for years the heart and face of the franchise. He is now a free agent after being slowed by a knee problem and then missing the last four games of the season with a hamstring injury.
“We were unable to reach an agreement with Brian and both sides have decided to move forward,” Emery said in a statement. “Brian has been an elite player in our league for over a decade. He showed great leadership and helped develop a winning culture over his time with the Bears. We appreciate all he has given our team, on and off the field. Brian will always be welcome as a member of the Bears.”
The 34-year-old Urlacher, an eight-time Pro Bowl player, started 180 games from 2000 through 2012, recording a team-record 1,779 tackles. The ninth overall selection in the 2000 draft has 41.5 sacks, 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles. He was the AP’s defensive player of the year in 2005 and helped lead the 2006 team to the Super Bowl.
“Over the last 13 years Brian Urlacher has been an outstanding player, teammate, leader and face of our franchise,” chairman George McCaskey said. “As Bears fans, we have been lucky to have such a humble superstar represent our city. He embodies the same characteristics displayed by the Bears all-time greats who played before him and he will eventually join many of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We thank Brian for all he has given our team and our city. He will always be a part of the Bears family. We wish him the very best.”
Urlacher told the team’s flagship radio station WBBM-AM in Chicago that he was not shocked that it came to this.
“I am definitely not surprised. I kind of had this feeling this whole offseason with the way the whole thing was being handled,” Urlacher said. “We made an offer, the Bears asked us to make an offer early, so we did. Never heard back from them. They made an offer, we responded to their offer and it was more like an ultimatum is what it was. It was, Sign this contract or we are going to move on. And I didn’t feel like that was the direction I wanted to go.”
The parting with Urlacher is just the latest change in what’s been a busy offseason for Chicago.
The Bears fired coach Lovie Smith after a second straight late collapse left them out of the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, although they did finish with 10 wins.
They replaced him with the offensive-minded Marc Trestman, hoping he could get the most out of quarterback Jay Cutler, and addressed two major issues in free agency by signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod from New Orleans and tight end Martellus Bennett from the New York Giants.
Trestman also said that the Bears wouldn’t change much from the cover-2 scheme they ran under Smith, but he offered what seemed like lukewarm endorsements when asked in recent weeks about Urlacher.
Now, they’re parting ways. And the Bears have big holes to fill at the position.
Their only starting linebacker under contract is Lance Briggs. Strong side linebacker Nick Roach — who also saw time in the middle — signed with Oakland.
It’s not clear what’s next for Urlacher. He had said he wanted to return to the Bears and had posted pictures on Twitter in recent weeks indicating he was working his way back into shape, but whether he will latch on with another team remains to be seen.
His agents did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Urlacher sprained his medial collateral ligament and partially sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the 2011 regular-season finale against Minnesota and hasn’t been the same since then.
He barely participated in training camp, had an arthroscopic procedure in mid-August to relieve the swelling, and spent most of the season trying to regain his old form.
Then, he came up lame in coverage on the second-to-last snap of the Bears’ overtime loss to Seattle in early December, an injury that ended his season and his tenure with the Bears.
Former Bears defensive end Alex Brown said it was a “sad day” on Twitter and called Urlacher the “best football player I have ever had the pleasure of stepping on the field with.”
A safety with lightning speed, the 6-foot-4 Urlacher initially lined up at strong side linebacker for the Bears but lost the job to Roosevelt Colvin. He made the switch to middle linebacker during his first season when Barry Minter was injured and went on to become the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year, the start of a long run that saw him anchor a defense that consistently ranked among the league’s best.
Now, his run with the Bears is over.
Asked what he’ll miss the most about his time in Chicago, Urlacher told WBBM, “The No. 1 thing is my teammates. I am going to miss them the most.”