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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000

Bears LB Urlacher disproves doubters

Impressive workouts at the NFL combine often bring relatively unknown players out of the shadows, and February, Brian Urlacher was one of those players.

The New Mexico linebacker went with the usual reservations. Because he wasn't from a big-time program, some wondered if he was just a workout phenom whose speed in the 40 and impressive bench press wouldn't translate to the field.

Eight weeks into the season, it's clear Urlacher's skills translate to the field better than a U.N. language expert.

Urlacher leads the team with six sacks and 71 tackles. His sack total leads all NFL linebackers and is tied with Saints defensive end Darren Howard for most by a rookie. Urlacher has a sack in five consecutive games, tying Duane Bickett (1985) for the third-longest streak by a rookie. No. 2 is Mike Croel (seven in 1991). The record is eight consecutive games by Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse last season.

Fans who saw the Chicago-Minnesota game last week probably are thinking Urlacher isn't that good because they saw Robert Smith run for a 72-yard touchdown. Think again. Urlacher was taking a rare breather. Backup Khari Samuel was in and missed Smith in the backfield.

Urlacher won't say he would have made the tackle, but he has made plenty of others for the Bears. Perhaps the best thing about Urlacher is he continues to push himself to new heights.

"I'm missing tackles, and I'm not very physical out there," Urlacher said. "Every once in a while I get a good hit or something, but I'm not physical with the offensive linemen. I don't hit them very hard, and they still push me around a little bit. I need to work on that. And I'm still unsure on certain plays about the defense."

DARING DARREN: The raves continue to pour in for Howard, a former Boca Ciega standout. New Orleans officials are pushing him for rookie of the year.

"He's playing as good or better than any rookie I've ever had," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "If he doesn't win rookie of the year, something's wrong."

Philadelphia defensive tackle and former Seminole Corey Simon also is a rookie of the year candidate. He has five sacks.

FLUTIE MAGIC: Buffalo's Doug Flutie returns to action against Minnesota today, hoping to spark an offense that has struggled to run the ball and protect quarterback Rob Johnson.

In his past 10 full games with the Bills, Johnson has thrown 17 touchdowns and four interceptions, and has a quarterback rating of 102.5. He also has been sacked 42 times.

Meanwhile, Flutie was sacked 26 times in 15 starts last season and nine times in 10 starts in 1998. The Bills ranked fifth in the NFL in sacks allowed in 1999, compared with 30th this season.

In those 15 games in '99, Flutie threw 16 interceptions and 19 touchdowns, and had a 75.1 rating.

Hence, Johnson often gets the ball down the field with his better arm, but those attempts often result in more sacks. Flutie may not have an arm strong enough to throw down the middle of the field, but he can get the ball to Eric Moulds on other routes and do a better job avoiding sacks because of his pocket presence.

"I just want to win the game," Flutie said. "It's a lot more fun to be on the field throwing the football than it is to stand on the sideline cheerleading. When I got in the Miami game, all of a sudden I was smiling again. It had been a long time. So I enjoy playing. I enjoy being on the field and competing."

BYE-BYE, BRAD: Word out of Washington is the breakdown in negotiations between the Redskins and Brad Johnson's agent, Phil Williams, is a clear sign Jeff George will be the quarterback next season.

The Redskins already are over the expected $68-million salary cap for next season, meaning they will have to let go some high-priced players, such as guard Tre Johnson or wide receiver Michael Westbrook, or spend lots of bonus money to extend deals to lower the cap impact so they can afford Johnson.

Johnson knows the team is too strapped to make him the franchise player; it would cost the Redskins more than $6-million. That means he can skate after the season. Why should he settle for less money than he could get on the open market?

"There's no bitterness or animosity. It's just business," Johnson said. "A week from now this won't even be discussed."

FRAT BOYS: Seattle coach Mike Holmgren has a rooting interest in the Subway Series. Turns out some 30 years ago, Holmgren welcomed two pledges to the Sigma Chi house at USC: Bobby Valentine and Bill Buckner. That chapter has turned into a veritable Who's Who. Along with Holmgren, Valentine and Buckner, it included actor Tom Selleck and future Kinko's founder Paul Orfaela.

ET CETERA: San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia is on pace to break all Steve Young's season team records for passing. With 19 touchdown passes and 1,794 yards in seven games, he is on pace to finish the year with 43 touchdowns and 4,101 yards. The records are 36 passes and 4,170 yards, both set in 1998. ... The Bills lead the NFL with 17 of their draft picks in the starting lineup through mid-October. Tampa Bay is second with 16.

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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