Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chicago Bears Middle Linebackers: "Defense by George"


Chicago Bear fans love their defense. If the number one goal of the Bears franchise is to beat the Green Bay Packers, certainly the number two goal is to field an awesome defense. This hasn’t changed as far as we can tell at Sporting Chance Press.

An awe-inspiring part of that defense has been the gifted linebackers who have played in the navy blue and burnt orange. The middle linebacker has been the most glamorous (if you can use that term in football) defensive position. Modern fans have enjoyed watching Brian Urlacher since the start of the new millennium. Before Urlacher, fans remember the great Mike Singletary who played from the 1981 season through the 1992 season. Barry Minter was a bridge between Singletary and Urlacher, playing steadily as starting Bears middle linebacker from 1994 into the early part of the 2000 season.

Almost a decade before Singletary, there was Dick Butkus who played from 1965 through 1973. And before Dick Butkus, there was another great middle linebacker. But the man who Butkus replaced, Bill George, is no longer a household name as are the more recent stars, but he is someone worth remembering in the genealogy of Bears players. George was one of the all-time best. He played for the Bears from 1952 into the early 1965 season when he was injured and replaced by Dick Butkus.

Urlacher-Singletary-Butkus

Urlacher was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He’s a seven-time Pro Bowler. Urlacher continues to impress fans for his power and speed. Commentators often talked about how Urlacher could cover receivers who were considered too fast for linebackers. Urlacher’s best on the 40-YD Dash is said to be 4.5 or even lower by some accounts. Mismatch was not a term used to describe Urlacher covering an opposing receiver. While he may be a little slower in his 12th season, his speed and quickness still surprise runners, receivers and quarterbacks. His recent play continues to show an athleticism that astounds fans.

Singletary was intense and intellectual. Chicago Bear fans appreciated his punishing tackles, his heads up play and leadership more than his crazed looks that the national sportscasters and cameras seemed to love so much. Singletary had a talented group of defensive players around him who won the Super Bowl in 1985. He stood out as their leader. Singletary made everyone around him that much better. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

Butkus will be remembered by many as one of the most intimidating players of all time and one of the most fun to watch. You could see the fear in the opposing team’s offense each time the ball was snapped and he was on the field. Number 51 played during a tough era for the Bears despite his presence on defense and Gale Sayers on the offense. The 1969 Bears went 1—13 for the season.

Yet, Butkus's career was stellar. During the Sayers-Butkus era, fans were treated to watching two of best players ever. Butkus is also endearing to Chicago fans because he came from humble south side origins and played his college ball at the University of Illinois. He epitomizes so much of what it means to play Bear football. Butkus was an eight-time Pro Bowler inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Most fans are too young to remember Bill George. His name doesn’t come up in a lot of conversations these days, but he was a one of the best and a trend-setter. George was born in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, a coalmining region. He played his college ball at Wake Forest University. He was drafted in 1951 and played middle guard for the Bears in 1952. He was a ferocious competitor and feared throughout the league.

In those days, the middle guard was usually positioned at the line. On a pass, he would make contact with the offensive center and then drop back and cover. George decided that the contact was slowing him down and so on a passing play, he would drop back before the play was underway. In this way he was able to fill the space better and disrupt the shortest of passes in the middle. Essentially, George’s middle guard position morphed into what we call today the middle linebacker.

The middle linebacker quickly became a position that required all the defensive skills rolled into one: excellent sure handed tackling, pass rushing, pass defense, shedding blockers, quickness and speed---and extreme toughness to take a beating and dish one out. The unique central position on the field, several steps back of the line, also gave the middle linebacker a fine vision of the field. The middle linebacker became the field general that “quarterbacked” the defense.

Bill George was an eight-time Pro Bowler who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1974. He was key member of the Bears great 1963 Championship team. Sadly, Bill George died in a car crash in 1982. Bill George is a middle linebacker to remember along with the other greats.

Copyright Sporting Chance Press, publisher of Patrick McCaskey's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships and Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout and other fine titles.