Archive for June, 2011

Brian Urlacher—an All-Time Great?

Urlacher wrapping up a Cardinal RB in what some people consider his greatest game, MNF against the Cardinals in 2005.

Some statements recently by Dhani Jones, a journeyman NFL linebacker now with the Bengals, brought the career of Brian Urlacher into the media crosshairs once again—and his place in the context of NFL history. I am not sure if there has ever been a player whose skill level or production level has varied in the eyes of public opinion as much a Urlacher’s. He came into the league out of the University of New Mexico without as a college safety who did not even have a true NFL position. Some scouts had him as a tight end; some had him as a defensive end; and a few teams, including the Bears saw him as a linebacker. So it seems only fitting that, as we sit here twelve years later, the opinion on whether Urlacher belongs in he pantheon on all-time Hall of Fame linebackers to play in the NFL is jut as varied. Lets put aside for a minute Urlacher’s terseness with the media and off-the-field drama, and look at some stats and see what we find. As closely as we can, we will compare Urlacher’s numbers to some Hall of Fame LBs from other eras (Mike Singeltary, Dick Butkus, and Jack Lambert, Willie Lanier, and Nick Buonoconti), as well as a sure-fire Hall of Famer from his own era (Ray Lewis). We will even compare some stats from a couple middle linebackers who maybe should be in, but are not (Tommy Nobis, Lee Roy Jordan, and Sam Mills). Since tackles are probably the most altered and inaccurate statistic in all of sports, we will look at games played; sacks; forced fumbles/fumble recoveries; interceptions; and touchdowns. Since Hall of Fame worthiness for a middle linebacker also seems weighted (whether wrongly or rightly) toward their team’s overall defensive success, we will also look at some ranking stats for the defenses those players played on. So, without further ado, here we go:

Lets start with the safest measure of durability, career games played:
Ray Lewis 210
Jack Lambert 146
Dick Butkus 119
Willie Lanier 149
Ray Nitschke 190
Nick Buoniconti 183
Mike Singletary 179
Tommy Nobis 133
Lee Roy Jordan 186
Sam Mills 181

As you can see with Butkus, Lanier, and Lambert, there really is no correlation with this stat; even so, it looks like Urlacher is going to need 2 more full seasons to get to the level needed for HOF consideration. The missed 2009 season hurt, for sure. Next, we will look at sacks:

Ray Lewis 38.5
Jack Lambert 8
Dick Butkus na
Willie Lanier na
Ray Nitschke na
Nick Buoniconti na
Mike Singletary 19
Tommy Nobis na
Lee Roy Jordan na
Sam Mills 20.5

Sacks were not an official statistic until 1982; so it impossible to get an accurate number for the HOFers from previous eras. However, it is interesting to note that Urlacher has 3 more sacks than Ray Lewis in 56 fewer games played and double the sacks of Mike Singletary—all while (mostly) playing in a Cover-2 scheme that limits his pass-rushing chances; while Lewis played for the most part in an attacking 3-4 scheme; and Singletary played in the 46 scheme that had 7-8 players rushing the passer on almost every play. Now lets look at fumbles recovered, interceptions, and touchdowns scored:

URLACHER 11 fumble recoveries, 18 interceptions, 3 touchdowns scored
Ray Lewis 19, 30, 3
Jack Lambert 17, 28, 0
Dick Butkus 27, 22, 1
Willie Lanier 18, 27, 2
Ray Nitschke 23, 25, 2
Nick Buoniconti 6, 32 2
Mike Singletary 12, 7, 0
Tommy Nobis 13, 12, 2
Lee Roy Jordan 18, 32, 3
Sam Mills 23, 11, 4

I do not have any statistical proof, but the advent of the quick, timing-based West Coast offense in the 80’s has shortened passing routes and limited the amount of opportunities for all defensive players to get interceptions. You would like to see some more fumble recoveries for Urlacher, but he has 3 defensive touchdowns—more than anyone except Sam Mills. The next factor we will look at is how many times these players’ teams finished in the top 5 in points allowed:

URLACHER 4 -Top 5 rankings in points allowed
Ray Lewis 6
Jack Lambert 6
Dick Butkus 2
Willie Lanier 6
Ray Nitschke 11
Nick Buoniconti 6
Mike Singletary 6
Tommy Nobis 0
Lee Roy Jordan 7
Sam Mills 5

Some people will argue that all the players that are on this list who are in the Hall of Fame have won at least one Super Bowl, with the exception of Dick Butkus; and thus, Urlacher needs a Super Bowl tile to be considered for the Hall of Fame. FOr that argument, I give you Lee Roy Jordan, who won Super Bowls and played in more Super Bowls than anyone on this list, and is not in the Hall of Fame.

Brian Urlacher is one of only three players (Lambert and LB Lawrence Taylor being the other two) to win both an NFL Rookie of the Year Award and and Defensive Player of the Year Award in their career. He has numbers that compare favorably to some of the best LBs of all-time, and he has been the face of a defense that has been ranked in the top 5 in the NFL 4 different times—all while playing in two completely different schemes. The fact that it has taken this long to get another Bear, DE Richard Dent into the Hall, and the fact that an MLB like Lee Roy Jordan is not in at all makes me question the whole process of Hall of Fame eligibility—so I am not sure Urlacher will ever get in—but there is no doubt that Brian Urlacher deserves mention as one of the greatest middle linebackers this league has ever seen.