CHICAGO – On Veterans Day, after Charles Tillman had ripped up his right triceps, the Pro Bowl cornerback turned to reporters and confronted the end of his season.
One asked whether the injury might spell the end of Tillman’s time with the Bears.
“Potentially, possibly, yeah,” said Tillman, an 11-year veteran. “But I guess I hadn’t really thought about it until you just said it. So, thanks for spoiling the mood.”
Consider the mood unspoiled.
Tillman is staying where he belongs after signing a one-year deal reportedly worth about $3.5 million, and the Bears don’t have to fret about replacing an iconic player.
The immediate, narrow-focus effect of Tillman’s re-signing is easy to understand.
Minus Tillman, the Bears had a gaping hole on the depth chart opposite Tim Jennings, and the free-agent market at cornerback left much to be desired.
Yes, Tillman is 33 years old, but when healthy he is more than capable of adding to his terrific career totals in defensive touchdowns (nine), interceptions (36) and forced fumbles (42). Before last season, Tillman had earned back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances despite being north of his 30th birthday.
But take a step back and view Tillman’s deal through a wide-angle lens, and it offers a blueprint for how proud veterans can adapt toward the tail end of their careers.
Take notes, Brian Urlacher.
Tillman’s storybook career with the Bears easily could have come with an abrupt, sour ending much like that of No. 54. Tillman earned $8 million last year in the final year of his contract, which he signed in 2007, and deep down inside, he must have believed that teams would line up to bid for him if the Bears played it cheap.
Tillman’s connections – we all know that’s the best way to land a job – included Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay and Rod Marinelli in Dallas. But, really, anybody with a coaches’ tape could see the difference that Tillman made on defense.
And then the first day of free agency arrived.
And then the second day.
And then the third.
And then the fourth.
Tillman paid a visit to his old coach in Tampa, but by then the Bucs already had signed another dynamic cornerback, 25-year-old Alterraun Verner. The kids call him “ATV,” which sounds fast and dangerous. As for “Peanut,” well, that just sounds old.
The Bears stayed tight-lipped, with general manager Phil Emery reciting something about free agency being an “ongoing process” whenever Tillman’s name came up. Internally, Emery must have known how much the Bears were willing to spend, which was less than half of what Tillman earned a year ago.
Urlacher’s final offer from the Bears was for less money than Tillman received – $2 million – but not by a ton, considering that Urlacher was two years older and had a longer injury history. Urlacher turned down the offer, which he said was an insult, and he has held a grudge against the franchise ever since.
Not as a football player, but as a cable TV analyst. Because no other team presented Urlacher with a rich contract offer, either, so he retired instead.
Kudos to Tillman, then, for understanding the cutthroat business of the NFL and extending his prolific career by at least one more season. Of course, he wanted to earn more. Of course, he thought he was worth more. At some level, we all do.
But Tillman loves to compete, and Bears fans love Tillman. And who doesn’t appreciate when two sides agree to a mature, sensible compromise?
Last year, Urlacher’s exit felt like a gut punch.
Here’s to the alternative. Here’s to the Peanut punch.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.