He was a solo tacklin’ machine.
And that’s a major (though not solo) reason Brian Urlacher is a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Every head football coach and defensive coordinator constantly preaches the value of gang tackling – 11 hats to the ball, etc., etc.
And yet, every defense needs at least one player – usually a middle linebacker, sometimes a safety – who, through a combination of recognition, pursuit, strength and technique, excels at the solo tackle.
Through his combined years of football at the University of New Mexico and with the Chicago Bears, that was Urlacher.
In large part, that’s why the former Lovington High School star became the first former Lobo inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame last year.
And also why today, in his first year of eligibility, he’ll be the first former Lobo inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Urlacher ranks fourth all-time on UNM’s list of tacklers with 442. He would rank higher had he not played sparingly as a freshman linebacker in 1996 and alternated with senior Bart Barnard in 1997.
In December 1997, Rocky Long was hired to replace Dennis Franchione as UNM’s head coach. In watching 1997 game film, Long couldn’t help noticing No. 44, the kid who’d made 11 tackles in just 32 plays during a victory over TCU.
With little or no hesitation, Long assigned Urlacher to duties as a roving free safety – the “lobo” in Long’s parlance.
Though UNM’s record book doesn’t divide tackling statistics into solo and assisted stops, memory serves almost as well. Urlacher was indeed a solo tacklin’ machine as a Lobo.
To some extent, that was out of necessity.
Long had some outstanding defenses during his 11-year tenure at UNM, but his first two units weren’t among them. He didn’t have all the personnel he needed to run his blitzing 3-3-5 scheme, and his defenders were still trying to learn the system. The Lobos gave up averages of 400 yards and 30 points per game thoses two seasons.
How much higher would those numbers have been without Urlacher at lobo safety? Chances are, much higher. “Url,” ranging from sideline to sideline and up and down the field, led the nation in total tackles as a junior in 1998. He earned first-team All-American status as a senior.
The Bears, having selected Urlacher with the ninth overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft, initially put him at outside “sam” linebacker – forcing him to fend off a tight end on most plays in order to get involved.
Before his rookie season was out, though, he was in the middle where he belonged.
Tackling statistics are an inexact science, and the NFL didn’t even publish tackling stats before 2001. We’ll never know how many tackles, solo or assisted, were made by past monsters in the middle like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Bill George, Sam Huff, Chuck Bednarik, et al, during their Hall of Fame careers.
But, based on statistics available on NFL.com and Pro-Football-Reference.com, it’s clear that Urlacher was among the top solo tacklers of his era.
During the span of his NFL career (2000-12), it appears that only two players, London Fletcher (1,240) and fellow 2018 Pro Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lewis (1,079), made more solo tackles than Urlacher’s 1,040.
Fletcher, who retired after the 2013 season, will become eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.
What made Urlacher such a great solo tackler?
Any evaluation of his talents must begin, of course, with a combination of size and speed that has been labeled – in a good way – freakish. At 6-foot-4 and almost 260 pounds, Urlacher was timed in the 40-yard-dash at 4.57 seconds – as fast as or faster than many NFL running backs.
Olin Kreutz, the Bears’ former Pro Bowl center, related to NBC Sports Chicago the first time he tried to jump out and “hook” Urlacher in a scrimmage.
“He just flew – gone,” Kreutz said. “… His speed was so amazing at his size.”
Once Urlacher caught up to a running back, tight end or wide receiver, his size and strength came into play. Though he didn’t specialize in the highlight reel tackle, as did fellow Hall of Famers Butkus, Lawrence Taylor and Ronnie Lott, his defensive end-like physique enabled him to put ball carriers on the ground without having to wrap them up and wait for the next guy.
Urlacher’s high football IQ, as well, should not be underestimated. His feel for the game allowed him to anticipate where a particular play was going.
“His intelligence was never given its just due,” former Bears coach Lovie Smith told chicagobears.com. “His understanding of the game is among the best who have ever played it.”
Being a master of the solo tackle, though, should never suggest Urlacher wasn’t a team player.
“A reluctant superstar, Urlacher prided himself as being one of the guys more than one of the game’s fiercest linebackers,” wrote David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. “… He was as unassuming as he could be unblockable, inelegant but authentic in a way that endeared him to Bears fans.”
Nonetheless, Urlacher’s one-man-gang affinity for the solo tackle was an overwhelming reason that resistance to his Hall of Fame candidacy was, well … so low.