Brian Urlacher was a frustrated man a year ago. He was injured and called overrated as the Chicago Bears struggled through their third straight losing season. Now?
The Bears are in the playoffs for the first time in four years. And Urlacher, the latest leader of the Monsters of the Midway, won the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award on Friday.
The Bears' star middle linebacker and the public face of a ferocious defense that allowed the fewest points in the league this season, Urlacher adds the honor to his 2000 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
"It's definitely exciting," Urlacher said during a conference call. "It's a big honor. When you look at the great defensive players in this league, there's a bunch of them out there."
But his eyes are on a bigger prize.
"This is my sixth year," Urlacher said. "I really hope I have a long way to go and a lot of stuff to prove in this league. I want a ring. All this stuff is great and good, whoop de do. But I want that Super Bowl ring. I feel like we have a really good chance to do it this year."
Chicago's turnaround from the bottom of the NFC North to 11-5 and division winner was paced by the defense, which yielded 202 points, 45 fewer than Indianapolis, the next-stingiest team. He had 121 tackles, six sacks and a fumble recovery, but stats don't define Urlacher.
Full-field coverage, intimidating hits and big plays do.
And Urlacher did plenty of that this season, after being limited to nine games by leg injuries last season.
"This whole season was a blessing," Urlacher said. "To go through what I went through last year, it was just so frustrating. I can't really explain it because I never had to deal with anything like that before. I had been healthy my whole career -- high school, college and, up to that point, the NFL."
Besides the injuries, there was the criticism. Eight scouts and two TV analysts -- all unnamed -- ranked him the most overrated player in the NFL in a Sporting News article.
"I was mad when it came out, frustrated, but the people who know me -- my teammates, the organization -- know what type of player I am and that's really all that matters," Urlacher said.
Urlacher's 34 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL gave him a runaway victory. Teammates Alex Brown at end, Lance Briggs at outside linebacker, and Nathan Vasher at cornerback each received one vote.
"Best player on the best defense. He should be the defensive MVP," Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown said. "He makes a lot of impact plays, but just him being on the field, teams have to scheme against us. They have to do different things to stay away from him. He's the leader of our team."
Second to Urlacher was Colts DE Dwight Freeney with four votes. Also receiving votes were Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (3), Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson (2), Giants end Osi Umenyiora (2), Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey (1) and Jaguars tackle Marcus Stroud (1).
But Urlacher was unchallenged.
"He's the best linebacker in the league," said Briggs, who plays next to Urlacher and had a breakout season himself. "He's making it happen all day, every day."
Added DE Adewale Ogunleye: "I don't think anyone in the league deserves that award more than him. He's busted his tail inside and out. Everybody's saying he's overhyped and overrated. He really did everything he had to do to be a leader."