Derrick Brooks has a lot to prove as the Bucs' lone voice of leadership.
By ROGER MILLS
Published August 1, 2004
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
As the undisputed leader of the defense, Derrick Brooks is determined to return the Buccaneers to prominence.
One day this offseason, while passing each other in a hallway at One Buc Place, coach Jon Gruden stopped Derrick Brooks and inquired if the veteran linebacker still had the fire that for years had been his trademark.
If the question was aimed at motivating the team's undisputed leader and sparking renewed indignation toward what people think he can do and where they think he can take the Bucs, then it worked tenfold.
With the departure of Warren Sapp and John Lynch, Brooks is the last of a Holy Trinity of stars who protected the franchise's most important commandment: "Thou shalt win with defense."
He is motivated. Very motivated.
"He said, "You've got an edge?' I said, "Yeah, I got an edge,' " Brooks recalled with a threatening glare. "Then he said, "Well sharpen your edge.' I said, "I'll sharpen my edge, you sharpen yours. You'll see how sharp mine is every time your offense lines up against me.'
"Every day I line up out there against them, I'm trying to smash them. Mentally, I'm trying to crush them. In the past, you'd line up and worry about getting better. Now, I'm going to get better by dominating. I'm going to make my teammates better because I have a dominating attitude. It's nothing I can say. It's about what I'm doing."
As usual, Brooks' timing couldn't be better.
For so many reasons, the former FSU All-American needs to have an edge if he's going to return the Bucs defense - and by proxy, the rest of the team - to the elite status it held two seasons ago.
Wherever the Bucs go, it's up to Brooks to take them there.
"Derrick has always been a very business-like, no nonsense kind of guy," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "But over the last six months, I have definitely seen a transformation with him. There's definitely an edge to him. Maybe, it's that he is the true leader now, the guy that everyone's looking at.
"Sometimes, he could get away by leading by example, he wouldn't have to say something. Whereas now, every man on this team, whether it's a 10-year veteran or a rookie, if something needs to be said, they look to him to say it."
This unparalleled responsibility is a product of seven consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, an NFL defensive player of the year award in 2002, a Super Bowl ring that same season and a league-wide reputation that he's the best outside linebacker in the game.
This offseason, the salary-cap business of the NFL threw Brooks a monumental, though not that surprising challenge, as the Bucs said farewell to Sapp, now with the Raiders, and Lynch, now with the Broncos.
The trio's dominance and consistency for the better part of past nine seasons helped raise the Bucs from a laughable entity to a prized product.
For better or worse, Brooks now stands alone.
"(Former) coach (Tony) Dungy is the first guy who talked to me about dealing with change, when he made that comment to me, "In order for to be successful, you've got to move on. I've got to let go of you guys to lead my team. And you've got to let go of me and look forward to Coach Gruden coming in here and coaching,' " Brooks said. "Once again, I'm relying on that same advice when it comes to losing Warren and John. I'm not going to lose them as men because they are always going to be my boys."
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who also has noticed a little more of a crusty finish on Brooks this year, said the departure of Sapp and Lynch, coupled with last year's 7-9 season, is leaving his defensive leader with a boulder on his shoulder.
"I think he's convinced himself that it's not going to happen again, regardless of who is here," Kiffin said. "He thinks he has to be more assertive, more of a leader. He wants to make amends for 2003."
Brooks takes exception to any suggestion that the defense, which finished ranked fifth last year and routinely failed to close out close games, is crumbling.
"I was listening to the radio one time and this caller came on and said, "What are the Bucs going to do, now that these guys are gone?' " he said. "And to be honest with you, I got (ticked) off. I took it personally. I'm still here. (Middle linebacker) Shelton (Quarles) is coming back. Ronde (Barber) is still here. Brian Kelly's coming back. ... It's something I don't normally do, get mad at something fans say."
Then, there's the question about his game. Entering his 10th season, the 31-year-old native of Pensacola has played in 144 consecutive regular-season games, which includes 128 straight starts.
After a stunning 2002 season in which he recorded 170 tackles, five interceptions and four defensive touchdowns, Brooks' numbers dipped in 2003, prompting some to wonder whether his best days are behind him.
That, too, elicits a bit of ire.
"I'm just as fast as I was," Brooks said. "To be honest with you, I am (a better player) because I've been around the game a little longer, my instincts are a lot sharper. That's why teams come in here and watch their defense and wonder why they can't get the same results we're getting by lining up in the same position. ... You can have the blueprint, but we have different tools. I can't be duplicated.
"I'll show you lost a step. We'll see. The only thing that went down were the interceptions, because they didn't throw my way. Obviously, they were smarter."
Barry said the criticism is predictable, but not justifiable.
"Every athlete runs into that at some point in their career. The doubters, the haters, the people who wonder, "Can Derrick Brooks still play?' " Barry said. "Well, within the walls of One Buc, we know he can. But maybe, he's out to prove that he can still be the defensive MVP of the NFL. Derrick Brooks has many, many years to play. He's got a lot more football left in him."
But, will those years be with the Bucs?
With a cap number over $9-million next season, Brooks is perilously close to suffering the same fate that befell Sapp and Lynch. Having once held out, and twice redone his deal to help the team create cap room, it's a stretch to believe the Bucs can work a new deal. It is equally difficult to believe the Bucs will take such a cap hit.
Something or someone has to give.
"Yes, I have thought about it," Brooks said. "But, is it consuming me? No! Obviously, that situation is going to have to be addressed. Whenever we needed salary-cap help this year, they came to me to help the team out. So, obviously those things will be addressed. But, it's not like I'm sitting out here worrying about that. "In my opinion, I don't think it's going to be my last year. But I can't allow myself to be distracted. I've got to think positive. ... I may be here for another 10 years. We don't know that. But, what I do know is I take every year since I've been here like I have to make this football team."
Whether season 10 is his last in a Bucs uniform - he and Quarles are the only remaining starters who played in the original orange colors - Brooks relishes what he has meant to the franchise and what he will have to mean this season.
"There are other leaders on this team, but when there's a voice to be heard, it's going to be mine," he said. "One, because I don't say much and two, when I speak, I'm going to talk the loudest and I'm going to back up what I say."
A few excerpts from Times staff writer Roger Mills' discussion with the Bucs linebacker:
You did not have the best statistical year last season, did your game slip in 2003?
I think I was better in some areas. I think I was better in my patience because I had to play with a new lineup in some sense, every week. I had never played with a defense that was hurt as much as last year. But, I was there every week. Stats will come and go. (I wasn't) better because we were 7-9. We lost six drives at the end of ballgames to close it out when we didn't make a play. That's why I wasn't better, not because of the stats. I look at the year before and three close games, I close out. We didn't get it as a team. Maybe I could have dropped a little deeper to give the defensive line more time to get there.
Can you remember being this motivated?
Professionally, I'm real anxious for this season to come. The last time I felt an edge, like I really wanted to prove something, was when I got drafted. I was considered a risk, a chance. Now, I'm considered a prototype. Ten years later, they are drafting people in the mold of Derrick Brooks. Ten years ago I was a risk, a chance. Now, I would like to think that I'm changing the position. Everyone's looking for that guy who can run like a safety, cover like a safety but still has the tenacity to hit and tackle in the open field. What's the priority for the team now?
It is more important for us to focus on getting better today. Let's not worry about winning the Super Bowl. Let's worry about being the best defense that we can be today. Then we will take care of tomorrow.
Has it been strange without Warren Sapp and John Lynch?
To be honest with you, it was different. When I reach a different point in the season without those guys, it is going to feel a little weird. This offseason, not seeing them around was weird. Not seeing Warren Sapp and John Lynch around training camp is weird. After seven Pro Bowls, most have come to expect nothing but excellence from you. Is that fair?
That's one side of the coin. On the same side, you have to keep those standards high. I would hate to think I'm a victim because I want to be the best in the business. In some ways, we are a victim of our success. We wanted to be the best of all time and forgot to be the best today. But we have to set our standards high. It works both ways. It's a matter of is the glass half empty or half full? In both cases, it's got water in it.