As NFL coaching staffs and front offices have increased their emphasis on passers and those who attack passers, middle linebackers have lost their luster in recent decades. But two players emerged in the last decade and a half to change the perception that linebackers who didn't blitz couldn't be superstars.
Fittingly, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis are retiring together, and there's a small chance both enter the Hall of Fame together in about half a decade.
Lewis walked away a Super Bowl champion in February, while Urlacher confirmed Wednesday on Twitter that he's going out on less glamorous terms. He was let go by the Bears in March and apparently couldn't find the right job elsewhere.
Urlacher and Lewis should leave together. Two of the scariest dudes of this generation, and two throwback linebackers who stood out above all of their peers at that position. It just feels right.
Combined, the two played 30 seasons but never switched teams. Lewis spent 17 in Baltimore, while Urlacher played 13 in Chicago. They recorded 2,565 tackles in 410 games (6.3 tackles per game over a 17-year span). They both had exactly 41.5 sacks, but Urlacher played in 46 fewer games. Urlacher had 6.8 tackles per game, while Lewis "settled" for 5.8. He had nine more interceptions than Urlacher (31 to 22), but Urlacher beat Lewis by a margin of 11 when it came to passes defenses (78 to 67). Lewis forced 17 fumbles, while Urlacher had 12, but that works out to only 0.008 more forced fumbles per game in Lewis' corner.
They made three Super Bowls, with Lewis winning two and Urlacher losing one. And that might be the biggest difference between the two and the only reason why Lewis becomes a first-ballot Hall of Famer while Canton makes Urlacher wait.
That would be a shame, though, because this is a team game. And while both were remarkable leaders, championships shouldn't define individual athletes completely. Urlacher has the look and feel of a first-ballot Hall of Famer, at least so long as everyone believes Lewis does.