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A rotation system - and the intelligence of its players - bolsters Derrick Brooks and Co.
By ROGER MILLS
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000
TAMPA -- When middle linebacker Jamie Duncan suffered a concussion against the Redskins, the Bucs knew rookie Nate Webster was more than capable of filling in. When starter Shelton Quarles twice injured his groin this season, they were certain Al Singleton would not be a drop-off.
And, should All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks have to come out of the game, then behind him is Jeff Gooch, who started every game two seasons ago.
When it comes to the linebacking corps, depth is not a luxury but a staple.
"Coming in, you know it's a long year and you have to keep developing the guys that are backing up the starters and we've tried to do that," linebackers coach Lovie Smith said. "The guys who aren't our first-teamers have to stay into it mentally and we try to work with them a little bit after practice. In many ways, it's the same type of athletes in our first group that we have in our second group."
Over the past few games, that second group has faced its biggest test, and according to the coaching staff, passed with flying colors. Webster (19 tackles) played for Duncan against the Vikings in Minnesota and handled his duties well. Singleton (31 tackles) subbed for Quarles against the Falcons and was equally impressive.
"We don't necessarily say because he's not a starter he's not a good player," coach Tony Dungy said. "It is a good feeling to know that you have got experienced guys that can go in the game at really any position."
Three key requirements are at the heart of the Bucs revolving-door linebacking philosophy -- a willingness to participate in the rotation, an intelligence to master it is expected and an anticipation that good play will be rewarded.
"We do rotate a lot," said Duncan, who played about two-thirds of the snaps against the Packers. "There are a lot of teams that are deep but they don't choose to rotate their players like we do. It's the system we use here because it works for us."
With the exception of Brooks, who plays the weak side and won't leave the field unless he's on a stretcher, most of the other linebackers have played a role in the rotation. Quarles plays the strong side but occasionally goes into the middle in the nickel defense. Webster salivates at the middle spot but has the speed and playing making ability to move outside. Singleton, who played extensively for Quarles against Detroit and Atlanta, is capable of playing both. Gooch and veteran Don Davis wait their turn but make up for it as special teams standouts.
"That's one of the big pluses in rotating guys as much as we do and letting them play," Smith said. "When you do have someone that's pressed into the game, it's not a crisis."
Smith and Dungy believe having great physical tools is essential, but for the rotation to work well, the linebackers have to have a modem-speed ability to process information.
"That's one of the first thing I noticed when I got here, the guys were all very smart," Singleton said. "We have a saying here that the wheels never come off. We may change them around, but they never come off. You've got to have some brains to play for Coach Smith."
To be sure, there are no Forrest Gumps in this crew. Quarles and Duncan are graduates of Vanderbilt, a school known for high academic standards. Brooks has a masters degree in business communication, Gooch was once a quarterback and Davis was a part-time event marketing coordinator in the corporate headquarters of the Checkers fast-food chain.
"Sometimes we joke around and say you have to have a degree to play in our system," Smith said.
The biggest challenge, Smith said, is ensuring that all the players get a chance to prove their worth in different situations. In keeping with Dungy's philosophy that good play in practice earns you minutes on Sunday, Smith has decided that no matter who the starters may be -- Brooks excluded -- excellent play by reserves will not go unrewarded.
"The rewards are essential," Singleton said. "A lot of the guys here feel they should play every snap and that's a good thing."
Even Gooch, who knows how slim his chances for playing time are, said he has learned a lot since losing his strong-side job to Quarles and moving to Brooks' side.
"At first it was difficult," Gooch said. "But now, I'm paying close attention to everything. I understand that everybody has a role and my role is to be ready if they need me. I can't worry about Derrick not coming off the field. I prepare every day like I'm going to play.
Brooks, who describes his crew as the best linebacking corps in the game, said it depends on Gooch's and Davis' perspective.
"Even though I don't come off I'm always asking Jeff and Don what's going on and if they are seeing something that's out there," Brooks said. "And they constantly help me and in that way. It keeps all the linebackers into the game. That's what our coaches expect. Lovie expects each and every one of us to know what's going on during every part of the game and if he doesn't see you right up there following the game, he gets kind of upset."
BUCS AT BEARS: 1 p.m. Sunday, Soldier Field, Chicago. TV/RADIO: Ch. 13; WQYK-AM 1010, FM-99.5.