Former NFL center Kevin Mawae knows exactly how good both Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis were in their prime in the NFL.
With both linebackers up for the Hall of Fame Class of 2018, Mawae was recently asked about the former Chicago Bears linebacker and Baltimore Ravens linebacker and who he’d choose between the two if he had to.
“For me, it would be Urlacher,” Mawae told Talk of Fame Sports, via Clark Judge.
“I played against both of the guys, and Ray was … the guy belongs in the Hall of Fame, no doubt about it,” he said. “But I’ve got to view it in the lens of how I played against guys … not as if I was in the coach … I’ve got to do it in how I played against them. To me, Ray was all over the place — an athletic guy, but he was not a downhill hitter. He’s not taking on offensive linemen. He was a jump-around guy.
“Brian Urlacher, sideline to sideline … could do it all … just like Ray. But he was more of a physical player in the box against offensive linemen, and that’s just the way I view it. Half-one dozen, half the other. Both of them are going to get in. You know what I’m saying?”
That’s some pretty impressive praise from Mawae, who is also a finalist for the 2018 Hall of Fame class. He compared the athleticism of both but felt Urlacher was far more willing to get physical near the line of scrimmage, while Lewis’ game was more about making the offensive player miss.
“Urlacher did all the stuff Ray did. But he played downhill on you. He’s going to come in and put his helmet on you and shed blocks,” Mawae said. “I never felt that way about Ray. And whenever we played Ray, it was never like … ‘Oh, man I’ve gotta’ … I felt a bigger challenge for me was playing Zach Thomas than Ray Lewis. That’s just a personal view.
Some feel Urlacher could have a hard time making it into the Hall of Fame this year because of Lewis, but if more have the line of thinking that Mawae does, the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year could be donning that yellow jacket later this summer.
It was sound strategy.
In the days when the Bears introduced their defensive starters at Soldier Field, they’d save their most popular player for last. Soldier Field would vibrate with cheers as he ran out of the tunnel, and the Bears hoped the momentum would carry over to kickoff.
Linebacker Brian Urlacher, the face of the NFL’s founding franchise, was that man. Only he didn’t want to be.
‘‘He came to me and said: ‘Can we not have individual intros? They cheer louder for me than everyone else, and I don’t feel good for my teammates,’ ’’ said Lovie Smith, who coached the Bears in 2004-12. ‘‘After that, we had all three linebackers come out together.’’
On Saturday, Urlacher will face the cheers — and the scrutiny — alone. The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48-person selection committee will meet in a ballroom in Minneapolis to decide whether he and the 14 other modern-era finalists are worthy of election.
The list will be whittled to 10 and then to five by the committee, which is made up of media members from each NFL market. The five modern-era finalists will face a yes-or-no vote, and those with 80 percent approval will be announced during the NFL Honors ceremony that night as the next Hall of Fame class.
Is Urlacher a first-ballot Hall of Famer? His résumé — eight Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pro selections and one Super Bowl appearance — makes a strong case. Some think the likely induction of another first-time candidate, 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis, might affect the vote on Urlacher.
‘‘First-ballot Hall of Famer,’’ said Smith, now the coach at Illinois. ‘‘Does Ray Lewis deserve to go? Absolutely. Does Brian Urlacher? Absolutely.
‘‘If Gale Sayers and Walter Payton were first-time Hall of Famers on the same vote, would you not put one of them in just because of that?’’
• • •
Every legend has an origin story.
‘‘If selectors need convincing, just watch the Arizona game from 2006,’’ Bears chairman George McCaskey said.
The Bears’ 24-23 victory against the Cardinals on ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ at University of Phoenix Stadium was perhaps the defining regular-season moment of a season that ended at the Super Bowl.
The Bears trailed 20-0 at halftime when Smith encouraged Urlacher, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year the season before, and center Olin Kreutz to talk to their teammates. Still, the Bears trailed 23-3 in the last minute of the third quarter.
‘‘We had a timeout,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I said to Brian: ‘We’re running out of time. We’ve gotta make a move. Somebody’s gotta come up with a few plays. And it’s gotta be now.’ And really, as the script goes, that’s what happened.’’
With two seconds left in the third quarter, safety Mike Brown returned a fumble three yards for a touchdown. With five minutes left in the fourth, Urlacher stripped the ball from running back Edgerrin James — another Hall of Fame finalist — and cornerback Charles Tillman ran in the fumble for a 40-yard touchdown.
Devin Hester’s 83-yard punt return two minutes later gave the Bears their first lead. With 52 seconds left, Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers hooked a 40-yard field-goal attempt, sealing the Bears’ most unlikely victory.
‘‘Some things were meant to be,’’ Smith said.
As Cardinals coach Dennis Green said after the game, the Bears were what the Cardinals thought they were. So was Urlacher.
‘‘Everybody remembers coach Green’s speech and Hester’s punt return,’’ said McCaskey, who was on the sideline assisting equipment manager Tony Medlin that night. ‘‘But Brian’s performance that game was one for the ages.’’
The Bears credited him with a staggering 25 tackles, two quarterback hurries and two passes broken up. It was his finest game as a professional.
‘‘When you’re talking about a Hall of Famer, there should be a game like that,’’ Smith said. ‘‘ ‘This is why I’m different than anybody else.’ ’’
• • •
There’s no question in linebacker Lance Briggs’ mind that Urlacher deserves the nod.
‘‘He’s been the defensive MVP, he’s had numerous Pro Bowls, All-Pros, he’s been the leader of the team, the face of the franchise,’’ said Briggs, who played alongside Urlacher for 10 seasons. ‘‘You want to talk numbers? He’s got numbers that compare to all the best in the game.’’
On a franchise synonymous for inside-linebacker play — Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Bill George are already in the Hall of Fame — Urlacher modernized the position. A safety at New Mexico, his ability to drop deep into coverage made Smith’s Tampa-2 defense revolutionary.
By the time he retired after the 2012 season, Urlacher had set the franchise record for tackles. He posted 22 interceptions (two for touchdowns), 11 forced fumbles, 15 fumble recoveries (two for touchdowns) and 41½ sacks. The ninth pick in the draft, he was voted the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000.
‘‘He’s a guy that could lay a comfort blanket over the 10 other guys on the field,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘Because not only did he make sure we’re all set, ready to play, but we know that somehow, someway, he’s going to make a big play.’’
Hester, who one day might get his own Hall of Fame bust as the greatest return man of all time, bristled at the notion that Urlacher might be excluded.
‘‘I hate when people try to debate stuff that’s really not debatable,’’ Hester said. ‘‘It’s a no-brainer. Brian Urlacher deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. You have guys that you kind of question, but when you’ve got a guy who you know deserves to be in, I don’t know why people try to debate about the situation.’’
Hester said Urlacher would invite teammates over to watch ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ games and to play pool and table tennis. He’d make new teammates feel at home fast. When players had issues, they’d seek him out.
‘‘He was one of those guys who rallied the troops off the field to build that kind of family bond,’’ Hester said.
That was one reason Urlacher preferred to be introduced with his fellow linebackers.
‘‘He’s one of the rare guys who’s got the kind of humility you don’t usually see from guys that make that kind of money,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘He comes from a small town, and he’s got a big heart.’’
• • •
The Bears won’t retire Urlacher’s No. 54 — they’ve run out of jerseys to issue — but they still would like to honor him at Soldier Field. A Hall of Fame induction would be a good reason to do so.
‘‘We’d love to get him back to Soldier Field, so that his fans can show their appreciation to him,’’ McCaskey said.
His coaches and teammates, meanwhile, plan to go to Canton, Ohio, for the ceremony, whenever the Hall calls.
‘‘Brian Urlacher, you think ‘Mike’ linebacker, Chicago Bears, bald head, 6-4, faster than everybody on the field,’’ Smith said. ‘‘What did the guy do? Defensive Player of the Year, led his team to the Super Bowl. First-ballot Hall of Fame.’’
McCaskey attends the NFL Honors ceremony every year. He hopes Saturday will be special — for Urlacher and the Bears.
‘‘To me, you either belong among the immortals or you don’t,’’ McCaskey said. ‘‘Brian certainly does.’’