Debating greatness: Urlacher vs. Lewis
Urlacher and Lewis, who will be on the 2018 ballot for Canton, have been compared throughout their careers. Now that the final chapters have been written on their storied careers, who was the superior player?
ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson and Jon Greenberg state the case for each.
Championship make difference for Lewis
Brian Urlacher is one of the greatest athletes to ever play the middle linebacker position.
There is little doubt, at least in the mind of this reporter who covered Urlacher for the final nine years of his NFL career, that he is worthy of being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But when asked to compare the legacies of Urlacher and fellow recently retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis, it's difficult to argue that Lewis did not have the better overall career of the two, who will be on the same Canton ballot in 2018.
An athletic freak at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds, Urlacher revolutionized the middle linebacker spot in the 4-3 "Cover-2" defense the Bears played under former coach Lovie Smith since 2004. There was nobody better at cutting off the middle of the field than Urlacher, who also excelled in the Bears' 4-3 style of defense implemented by Dick Jauron and Greg Blache from 2000-03.
But Urlacher never won a championship.
Lewis won two with the Ravens, and managed to go out in a manner that most professional athletes can only dream of -- as a winner.
Lewis played for 17 seasons, was named first-team All Pro seven times, earned 13 trips to the Pro Bowl, was twice named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and took home Super Bowl XXXV MVP honors.
Urlacher's career spanned 13 seasons and included five first-team All Pro selections, eight Pro Bowl appearances and one NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Again, both are Hall of Famers. But Lewis has the edge.
Now, it's not Urlacher's fault that Lewis played on better teams throughout his time in the NFL, although the Bears' defense from 2005-06 was the top unit in the league.
But when the assignment is to determine which player had the better overall run, championships and awards do matter.
They matter a lot.
In this generation, Urlacher takes a backseat to almost nobody, except for Lewis.
Urlacher's approach sets him apart
Comparing Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher is a task best left to sportswriters with too much time on their hands. They were both great, so what's the big deal?
Both were ferocious hitters with speed to burn in their younger days who settled into roles as veteran leaders and future Hall of Famers.
Lewis was loud, Urlacher was quiet. Lewis could never completely live down that awful night in Atlanta, Urlacher once dated Paris Hilton.
Both personify their teams, though in Lewis' case, he basically created the Baltimore Ravens mystique and he won two Super Bowls. Urlacher carried the middle linebacker legacy in Chicago.
Despite the absence of Super Bowl rings, I wouldn't put Urlacher second to anyone, even Lewis.
Imagine if Urlacher had been drafted into that Ravens' defense. Instead, he came to the Bears, which was perfect, I suppose, because this is where the middle linebacker was created, and the ex-safety became the heir to George, Butkus and Singletary. But imagine Urlacher unleashed.
And with Smith came his defense, rooted in Cover-2 principles, and Urlacher's job morphed into a hybrid, calling signals and directing traffic and patrolling the middle field with either a thrust to the ballcarrier or quarterback (he had 11½ sacks in Smith's first two seasons) or a backpedal into the secondary, where he picked off 22 passes in 182 games.
He was the defensive MVP in the Bears Super Bowl season with 142 tackles (25 in that legendary game against Arizona), no sacks, just one forced fumble and three interceptions. But he was the heart of that defense, a role he would carry on through his final season.
How many could do what he did? Urlacher's athleticism was his calling card, and just because he wasn't as loud as Lewis, and didn't play for such a demonstrative defense, doesn't mean he suffers in comparison.
Urlacher was beloved by his teammates and coaches, and I can't imagine any of them would trade Urlacher for Lewis. He never put on any airs, never danced like a goon. He didn't play football as if it owed something to him, but rather as a game he enjoyed.
-- Jon Greenberg