The post-Mike Brown era has started for the Bears and they will be able to go about working to find some solutions in the secondary when they head to the scouting combine on Thursday.
Brown's nine-year career with the Bears was celebrated for his leadership skills and top play but the second half of his run was marred by injuries, a lot of them and ultimately that probably was the final straw in the decision not to pursue him as an unrestricted free agent. Brown isn't going to be easy to replace but replacing him in March and April is considerably easier to do than replacing him during the season if he is injured again. He's finished on injured reserve four of the last five seasons.
His teammates over the past few years talked about how he was indispensable and the funny thing is only a select few were around when Brown made his biggest mark on the field for the team, returning interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive weeks to win games during the middle of the 2001 season. You can make a long list of Brown's top accomplishments on the field. He is the franchise's all-time leader with seven defensive touchdowns. Here is a list, certainly incomplete, of some of his highlights:
Oct. 28, 2001--Jeff Garcia's pass to Terrell Owens went off the receiver's hands to Brown, who returned it 33 yards to seal an overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
Nov. 4, 2001--To borrow from Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again when Brown pulled a fluttering ball out of the air that had been deflected at the line of scrimmage by Bryan Robinson and returned it 16 yards to the same North end zone at Soldier Field to defeat the Cleveland Browns in overtime.
Sept. 19, 2004--In Lovie Smith's first trip to Lambeau Field, Brown scooped up a fumble and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown, the fifth score of his career. The play was overshadowed when he tore an Achilles tendon later in the game, starting a string of serious injuries that would plague him for the next four seasons.
Week 6, 2005 season--After the Bears managed to blow a late lead at Cleveland to fall to 1-3, Brown assessed the team in the locker room and said "we suck." Many later pointed to it as a turning point in a big year. The Bears went on to win the next eight games and win the NFC North.
Oct. 16, 2006--The "Miracle on Monday Night'' had some bigger plays in it but the comeback at Arizona wouldn't have happened without another Johnny-on-the-spot play as Brown had a three-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Again, the game was marred by a serious injury as he suffered a torn Lisfranc ligament that knocked him out for the remainder of the season and prevented him from playing in Super Bowl XLI, a game the Bears lost in part because of poor safety play.
Sept 21, 2008--Brown recorded a career-high 17 tackles in an overtime loss to Tampa Bay, a big performance in a season when he ended with 101 tackles, the third most in his career.
There are more. It's impossible to encapsulate nine years in a list. Brown means different things to different people and he has a long list of admirers around the league who respect him for his professional approach.
"He always had the toughness and was always a good teammate but he wasn't the most popular teammate because he could turn his back on a crowd and lead,'' ex-Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache said when contacted in December for a story on Brown. "Guys get their feathers ruffled once in a while when guys who aren't afraid to step up and lead step up and say what is right. He would piss some people off, particularly the guys that didn't want to be accountable.
"Mike is a warrior in every sense of the word. He may play a step slower than other guys and an inch shorter but he is still one of the most impactful safeties in his time in the league and it is because he understands the game and he understands the team concept and he has intangibles.
"He is what every Dad would wish his son would be. Not that he's better or different than my sons, he's what you would want a son to be. He's a man. It comes across in all of the things he does.''
There were many comments left about Brown from a blog entry the other day and the story in Saturday's edition. Many of them with complaints that the Bears will not bring him back, but this should not come as a surprise. Brown had a calf injury that landed him on injured reserve and prevented him from finishing three previous games in 2008. Muscle pulls have always been an issue with him. A calf muscle pull cost him the final four games of the 2005 season, the year he was elected to the Pro Bowl. The Bears decided it was time.
His exit leaves the team with three safeties under contract as Brandon McGowan, another player with a serious injury history, is also an unrestricted free agent. So is Cameron Worrell, who was signed to take Brown's roster spot in Week 17 so he could pitch in on special teams. Here is what remains:
Danieal Manning--Made just one start at safety in the season finale at Houston and managed to make an error in coverage that led to an Andre Johnson 47-yard score. Manning has all the physical ability to play the position and experience. Chances are better he will remain at nickel back where he thrived once coach Lovie Smith took over the position and started coaching him personally.
Kevin Payne--In his first full season, he made 16 starts and finished second on the team with 129 tackles. Payne piled up the tackles in the first half of the season when he was at strong safety and often times was the unblocked eighth defender in the box. He showed good hands as he led the team with four interceptions but doesn't have great range and his instincts weren't the best. He's young and still learning the position. One question worth considering is if the Bears would want to pair Payne next to a rookie. That would leave two young players manning the last line of defense.
Craig Steltz--Appeared in 11 games and made a big interception against Detroit. He's strictly a strong safety at this point and the club may have overstated things when calling him a "starting quality" player when it drafted him in the fourth round from LSU. But he's young and developing like Payne and should have a chance.
Which way will the Bears go to fill the position? We ought to get answers in the next two weeks after free agency opens Feb. 27. Here's a list of available safeties in free agency. We've covered the possibility of cornerback Charles Tillman making the move to safety but that would create a major void at left cornerback, one of the most critical positions for any defense. That move won't happen unless there is a replacement at corner.
As far as his future, Brown's agent Ethan Lock said his client hopes to continue playing.
A couple programming notes ... we'll be getting to Monday's edition of Four Down Territory later on. Because we're going to be busy at the combine later this week, Four Down Territory will only run through Wednesday this week. Send in your questions and we'll get to as many as we can. As usual, thanks for participating. We should have an action-packed end of the week from Indianapolis so make sure you check back often. We'll also be posting updates on Twitter. Sign up to follow cst_bears to get your mobile updates.