Cornerback's return gives franchise, fans a big boost

Published May 23, 2007

TAMPA - A man showed up at work Tuesday morning and, just like that, the weather got better in September. Hopes were raised, problems were solved and scalpers' ticket prices went through the ceiling.

Oh, the things Brian Kelly can do. Just by being healthy. Just by being happy. Just by, once again, putting on a Buccaneers uniform.

You remember Kelly. He is the cornerback who led the NFL in interceptions the year the Bucs became Super Bowl champions. He's also the guy whose injury in a Monday Night Football game hastened the end of the fairy tale a year later.

The past few seasons he has been hurt and he has been annoyed, and you were never quite sure which condition was the more serious.

Kelly missed most of last season with a toe injury that eventually required a surgeon's repair. Unfortunately, Kelly could not convince an HMO to correct the problem with his contract.

And that means he is still underpaid.

Kelly has said it. The statistics scream it. The Bucs probably even agree with it. But his contract has two years remaining, and the front office has not rushed forward with extra piles of cash.

So when Kelly left town to have surgery and never returned, some eyebrows were raised. When he declined to show up for the first round of voluntary workouts in the offseason, some tongues wagged.

Was this leading to a holdout? Were the Bucs considering a trade? And did someone change the locks when Juran Bolden was cut?

For the time being, the questions were answered when a smiling Kelly walked off the field Tuesday after his surprise appearance at a workout.

No news here, he said. His toe is fine and he is shocked - Shocked! - that anyone thinks he's unhappy or might be considering a holdout.

"I don't understand the big deal," Kelly said. "I'm never here this time of year. I don't understand why people don't grasp that. I'm on the West Coast with my family, my kids are in school. To me that's more important than OTAs. I hope you understand that and don't take it for something else."

Perhaps we got confused when Kelly first requested his contract be restructured, oh, six minutes after signing it. Or maybe when he brought it up again last year after Ronde Barber got a new five-year deal.

Look, I don't blame Kelly, 31, for being miffed with his salary. According to the players association, he's due to make $2.6-million in 2007 and $3.2-million in '08. That's about half of what a lot of top corners are making these days.

Does he deserve more money? Yeah. Was it his fault for signing a long-term deal before he had more leverage? Yeah. Should you feel sorry for him? Not unless your portfolio looks a lot healthier than mine.

By now, Kelly should know a holdout will not work. It rarely does in the NFL. So it's in his best interest to show the Bucs he is healthy and willing to work. It's the only way he's ever going to make money beyond his current deal.

And he does want a new deal.

"That would be nice. Yeah, that would be nice," Kelly said. "It's the offseason, it's the time to talk about it. You don't hear me talking about it during the season."

At this point, Kelly is one of the few remaining links to the glory days of this defense. John Lynch, Booger McFarland, Shelton Quarles and Warren Sapp are gone. Simeon Rice is hurting. Derrick Brooks is aging.

Kelly and Barber are crucial to the fortunes of this unit and, if you don't believe that, you haven't paid attention to the trends.

Since establishing himself as a front-line player in 2001, the Bucs are 37-29 when Kelly is in the starting lineup. They are 11-19 when he is not.

"He was healthy in '02 - we won. He was healthy in '05 - we won. He wasn't healthy last year, and we didn't win. He wasn't healthy in ('03), and we didn't win," said defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. "That's the proof of what Brian Kelly can mean to a team."

Having a healthy Kelly makes everyone's job easier. Safeties can cheat a little more toward stopping the run. Blitzes can be called without worrying about man coverage in the secondary. Defensive ends have more time to chase down a quarterback.

"It's a good feeling having everyone here," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said.

By himself, Kelly is not the missing link. He will not magically pull a playoff game out of his helmet. It is true that the Bucs have not always been a dominant defensive team when he is in the huddle.

But I do know that it has been a long time since they've been good without him.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.