Nothing signaled a Bears season suddenly gone askew Wednesday more than reporters surrounding backup linebackers Geno Hayes and Dom DeCicco, who both are closer to becoming potential answers to a trivia question than making a major impact.
What two players went in the lineup and on the roster after Brian Urlacher's last game in a Bears uniform?
That possibility loomed ominously this week after Urlacher strained his right hamstring against the Seahawks, meaning he likely will miss the final four regular-season games and perhaps the playoffs. Yes, the playoffs, which the 8-4 Bears have no excuse to miss again even without their emotional leader whose injury raised more compelling questions.
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When his hamstring popped in overtime Sunday, anybody else wonder what effect limited practice time due to a mysterious chronically bad left knee had on the conditioning of a 34-year-old pushed beyond his limits? Anybody in Chicago consider who would return to action first, Urlacher or Derrick Rose? How many Bears fans, in this age of instant analysis, immediately feared that would be the last they saw of No. 54 wearing a "C'' on his helmet?
The understandable speculation over Urlacher's next step makes sense. General manager Phil Emery hardly seems like the sentimental type and, with no contract for next year, what Urlacher still can do on Sundays will trump what the best player of the post-Ditka era has done. If coach Lovie Smith cannot find a way to salvage a playoff season for the second straight December, then he won't be around to push for his Cover-2 middle linebacker who's unlikely to leave town before Smith does.
Yet it still seems a little early to start wondering whether Urlacher fits better with the Cardinals or Cowboys in 2013. To me, the most likely scenario still favors the Bears and it starts unfolding Sunday at the Metrodome.
"Plan B for us is pretty good,'' Smith said Wednesday.
Nobody would dare admit it, but I know of at least one conversation among Bears staffers this season about whether Plan B even might be better. It involves Hayes starting at strong-side linebacker and moving Nick Roach into Urlacher's spot in the middle. Both will do professional jobs against the Vikings. Neither is Urlacher who, even in decline, will be missed for intangibles harder to measure than solo tackles.
Everything's relative. Compared to the Urlacher of old, this season the linebacker has looked like, well, an old Urlacher. He plodded, missing more tackles and taking longer to shed blocks. But compared to the rest of the league, Urlacher still gave the Bears a player in the top half of players at his position. He made 88 tackles, forced three fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown.
He no longer is the most valuable Bear but his overall worth becomes easier to gauge listening to players than watching film.
"He's definitely the heart of our team,'' Brandon Marshall said. "I recognized that when I was traded here.''
The Bears defense won't be unrecognizable without Urlacher but it won't be the same either.
The irony: Teammates can increase the chances Urlacher hasn't played his last game in a Bears uniform if they play well enough without him to make his absence moot and qualify for the postseason. Welcome to the fourth quarter of the season, crunch time for the futures of Urlacher and Smith.
Make the playoffs and preserve stability with the likely return of both guys. If Smith returns, a free-agent Urlacher might discover he has more value to the Bears than any other team and settle for a reasonable two-year deal that reflects his diminished skills. Miss the playoffs and likely say goodbye to Smith, Urlacher and the status quo.
If the Ravens can go 4-2 without Ray Lewis, then the Bears should finish 3-1 without Urlacher against a favorable schedule. It was the backup linebackers holding court Wednesday, not the backup quarterback. As long as Jay Cutler remains upright, another Hanie-esque ending this season seems remote.
Consider the Cardinals, the Dec. 23 opponent, have the NFL's worst offense. A week later, the Lions will be in such a hurry to end their miserable season that Ndamukong Suh probably will double-park his SUV. A playoff-bound Bears team probably would need to split games against the Packers and Vikings, a realistic expectation even with an offense still finding itself. Even with a defense that will have a harder time living without cornerback Tim Jennings than Urlacher. Even with Hayes entering the lineup with more confidence than experience.
"This is not my first time around,'' said Hayes, who started 42 games for the Bucs the last three seasons. "It's not my first rodeo.''
It's premature to expect a circus at Halas Hall too.