coached a long line of exceptional 'backers, from his Giants' crew to Clay
Matthews in Cleveland, Mo Lewis with the New York Jets and McGinest and Ted
Johnson earlier with the Patriots. But the current linebacking corps might fit
his ideal better than any other.
BRUSCHI WAS first
into the room, a third-round draft pick in 1996 out of Arizona, where he had 52
sacks and, according to his coach, Dick Tomey, a motor that never stopped. He
became a starter in his fourth year with New England, when Pete Carroll was
coach, but blossomed as an inside linebacker under Belichick. Offensive linemen
who should have been able to flatten the 6'1", 247-pound Bruschi couldn't
get to him. "He can play the run without being a real thumper," says an
NFL assistant who has coached against the Patriots. "He competes because
he's got great hands to keep blockers off him and great instincts."
Bruschi was never
better than in 2004, the Patriots' third Super Bowl season, when he had 122
tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and three interceptions and made his first Pro Bowl.
"He was the guy you heard talking on every play, right up until the
snap," says Phifer, who played next to Bruschi on all three championship
teams. Just days after the Pro Bowl, Bruschi was hospitalized with a stroke
that left him with blurred vision and numbness in his left arm and leg. His
return to football, after intense physical therapy, in Week 8 of the 2005
season was one of the most inspiring NFL stories in recent years.
Two seasons later
teams try to find holes in Bruschi's game. "If he has limitations now, he
knows them so well that he's effective anyway," says another opponent's
assistant. "He maneuvers really well around big people inside. Nobody gets
a clean shot on him." Says Bruschi, who suffers no lingering effects from
the stroke, "I didn't come back until I was ready to play, so I am the same
But in the larger
sense he is predictably changed. "Can I talk to my teammates a little bit
differently after what I went through? I think so," says Bruschi. "I'm
a little wiser, I think. What happened to me makes you rethink everything. It
also makes you stronger."
Bruschi's compadre. He arrived in 2001, a former pass rushing hellion at Ohio
State who had stagnated for four seasons with the Steelers. The two have shared
so many snaps that they can communicate on the field without words or signals.
"Just a look," says Vrabel. Off the field their families became close,
while Vrabel and Bruschi's friendship evolved into a chops-busting contest that
talk to me about giving me strokes on the golf course and how, when I left the
hospital, I had my stroke walk really down," says Bruschi. "And at the
time he was negotiating a new contract, so I'm giving him a hard time about
that. Health and finances—those are two things that are usually
"It started going in a direction where it wasn't funny anymore. We were
always trying to see who could have the upper hand, and it was reaching a point
where two knuckleheads were just going to end up fighting each other. So we
On the field
Vrabel is Belichick's good soldier. He flourished as a 3--4 outside linebacker
for four full seasons, but he was moved inside to replace Bruschi during the
2005 season and again for the last five games of last year, after Seau broke
his right forearm. Vrabel's a weapon on goal line offense too: Against
Washington in Week 8 he caught his 10th career touchdown pass, to go with 13
tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles—one of the more phenomenal stat
lines for a defender in recent memory. "Student of the game," says
Cowboys were manhandled by New England in Dallas on Oct. 14, says, "Vrabel
knows that scheme so well. First, he's a Sam [strongside] linebacker, then he's
a Will [weakside] linebacker. Hand on the ground, then no hand on the ground.
Incredible versatility." He's unpredictable, and, just as important,
unselfish and unassuming. As Vrabel says, "I don't need a great story told
about me to feel like I've had a good career."