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Undervalue Brooks? Talk to Vick

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 9, 2002

TAMPA -- Perhaps he needs to howl at the moon. Perhaps then, America could get the proper measure of Derrick Brooks.

Perhaps he needs to dance, and perhaps he needs to swear, and perhaps he needs to foam at the mouth. Perhaps he needs to show the TV audience the circumference of his eyes or, at the bottom a pile, the sharpness of his teeth. Perhaps Brooks needs an outrageous nickname or an outlandish news conference.

Perhaps then, the rest of the country could catch onto just how good this guy really is.

Forget the noise, forget the statistics. On the best defense in the league, he is the best man in the huddle. On a unit full of stars, he is the brightest.

Brooks proved it again Sunday. He spent the day as Michael Vick's malevolent shadow, hounding him, harassing him, turning him into another guy named Mike. As good as Brooks has been in the past, he was better Sunday, and he set the tone for the Bucs' 34-10 thumping of the Falcons.

And you wonder:

Did anyone notice?

For five straight seasons, Brooks has made the Pro Bowl, so it's a little silly to suggest the country does not know his name. The point is that it does not know how to pronounce it. Most of the time, it lacks that hushed reverence reserved for stars, for players such as Lewis and Urlacher and Strahan and Douglas ... and, yes, Sapp and Rice.

It is high time America caught on. More than anyone, it is Brooks who puts the juice into a defense that has been good for eight seasons. It is time everyone else realized Brooks is not merely a very good player; Brooks is a great player.

"He's the best we've got," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "I've been saying that for eight years, and no one believes me. He's our highway patrolman. He stops everything on the highway."

What more do you need to see? How about the third play of Sunday's game when Vick, a player who has been turning the NFL into his own playground, decided to take off up the middle. Brooks hit him, and the sound was like a pipe hitting concrete, and Vick folded in two.

On the first play of Atlanta's next series, Vick rolled left, and he found his path cut off by Brooks again. Vick doubled back and began to run the width of the field, flashing past linemen as he went. It looked like the start of another chapter in the growing highlight reel of Vick.

"He went past me, and he went past (Greg) Spires, and I said, 'Oh, s---, there he goes,' " Warren Sapp goes. "Then here came our highway patrolman, with his sirens on and the lights flashing. When he tackled him, Vick looked at him a little wide-eyed. He told me later he'd never seen anything like that."

If you've been watching Brooks, you've seen it for years. He is the glove, the eraser. He has taken the flair out of Faulk and the vex out of Vick.

These days, however, people seem to measure linebackers differently. Brooks never has been used to rush the quarterback here, so he'll never sack the quarterback the way, say, Lawrence Taylor did. He has four interceptions this season, but that doesn't define his game, either.

But no one runs like Brooks, and no one tackles as surely. No one works harder, understands the game more. No one can take out another team's marquee player as completely. Isn't that what the term "defense" means?

"No one knows how good he is," Sapp said. "I think Derrick kind of likes it that way. He's more like a chairman of the board. The rest of us aren't that smart, you know. Add up all our IQs, and it doesn't come to 300. But Brooks is like Einstein or John Nash."

After the game, after the rest of the Bucs had left the locker room, Brooks sat in the corner, reflecting on the game. This one, with all its talk of Vick, had gotten to him. Earlier in the week, he had turned to Sapp and said this: "Vick has been hot for eight weeks. We've been hot for eight years."

It bothers him a little, more than he'll admit. Brooks, too, has heard people talk of great defenders. He has noticed how long it takes them to get to his name.

"Part of it is the way I am," Brooks says softly. "I'm not the guy who does all the talking. That's not me. We have enough talkers.

"But when we get together, the other players know who the leader is. They know where to come to get their fire. That's my job. I'm comfortable with it."

During the first half of Sunday's game, Brooks made everyone else uncomfortable. Particularly Vick. Five times, Vick ran the ball. Once was on a sneak. Once, he ran out of bounds. The other three plays, Brooks tackled him. In all, Brooks had 10 tackles in the first half alone.

He was in Vick's facemask so often, you would have sworn he was the Bucs' designated spy. Not so, said defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. The Bucs shared spying duties. Sometimes, it was Brooks. Sometimes, it was the other linebackers.

Regardless, Brooks usually got there first. The result is that Vick the running back was not a factor. And Vick the quarterback still has a lot of work to do.

"Is Brooks the best linebacker in the league?" linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "Hell, yes. When he's on his game, he's the best linebacker, the best tackler, in the game. The guy is on a mission to make sure everyone knows his name."

After all this time, after all this excellence, how does a player accomplish that? How does Derrick Brooks, firestarter, tonesetter, make people notice what they have overlooked for years?

Oh, a record could be a start. Sunday, Brooks was a half-second away. He returned a Vick interception 80 yards for an apparent touchdown, only to have it called back because Spires was offsides.

"Wouldn't that have made a great storyline?" Barry said.

Yes, it would have. Perhaps it would have made more people pay attention to the force Brooks has been in this league. Then again, perhaps not.

Brooks? He says he can live without the attention.

"Ask the other team," he says quietly. "They know who I am."

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