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Welcome to the 'Backerhood
November 12, 2007
Five disparate personalities, five enormous talents, one peerless unit: how New England's linebacking corps personifies the Patriot Way
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November 12, 2007

Welcome To The 'backerhood

Five disparate personalities, five enormous talents, one peerless unit: how New England's linebacking corps personifies the Patriot Way

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NEVER FAILS. The Patriots' linebackers will shuffle into their meeting room at Gillette Stadium during a game week, fold their bodies into chairs for an hour or more of whiteboard and videotape education, and soon enough coach Bill Belichick is among them. He doesn't have to be there. He can be anywhere he wants, including in the executive suite polishing Lombardi Trophies. Belichick's ID card works on every lock in the building, and he has Matt Patricia to coach his linebackers. Yet more often than not he is in this room.

It is a place where Belichick feels at home, with his kind of guys. Over there is Tedy Bruschi. They call him Bru. He had a stroke less than three years ago, and here he is—as vital to the defense as he was during New England's three Super Bowl seasons. Look at Mike Vrabel. Call him Vrabes. The guy can tell you what every defensive teammate is doing on every snap. Rosevelt Colvin. Rosy. In 2003, two games into his Patriots career, he suffered nearly the same horrible hip injury that famously ended Bo Jackson's career. Colvin's just now getting back to where he was then. Adalius Thomas. AD or Superman. He weighs 270 pounds, yet his old team, the Ravens, sometimes played him at cornerback. Junior Seau. Eighteen years in the league and still looking for a ring. Belichick pulled him out of retirement two seasons ago.

Those five have a combined 58 years' experience in the NFL (add in special teams demon Larry Izzo, and the total rises to 70; reserves Eric Alexander and Pierre Woods are also in the room), and none is younger than 30. They have been there and done that. Their room is a place where the gap between player and coach shrinks, and the common ground is broad. "I think Bill is at a point in his life and his career where he feels the highest comfort level around the veterans, the older guys," says Carl Banks, who played linebacker for the Giants when Belichick was their defensive coordinator in the late 1980s.

There is an energy in the room. Seau calling everyone Buddy. Colvin raving about his latest stellar play. ("He needs to get a tattoo of his own hand on his back," Thomas jokes.) Vrabel uttering subtle put-downs under his breath. When you play this position for the Pats, you are a member of what they call the 'backerhood. Maybe it was Willie McGinest who came up with the name, when he played in New England from 1994 through 2005. Or Roman Phifer, from '01 through '04. Maybe even Bruschi. Nobody seems to recall, except that it goes back a good while. They all know this: You can't have a thin skin in this room. "And no one is exempt," says Seau, "including Bill."

So the coach is inviting derision when he teaches through nostalgia, showing his linebackers videotape of his Giants' unit from the mid-'80s, a crew for the ages that included Hall of Famers Harry Carson and Lawrence Taylor, plus Banks, Gary Reasons and current Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson. "He wants us to be like them," says Vrabel. "He tells us, 'Just so you understand how it's done.' We joke back at him that, yeah, but they were doing it against guys who would be working construction these days."

The point is not in the substance of the argument, but in the passion. Belichick is a member of the 'backerhood, too. Last spring he took Colvin into the bubble behind Gillette and held a tackling dummy while the linebacker worked on pass rush moves. Colvin got better; Belichick got a nasty set of bruised ribs, which he could neither hide nor live down. "He's always making fun of us if we have a little nick," says Colvin. "So we've been on him ever since then. 'How are those ribs, Coach?'" Then they have a laugh at the man in the famous gray hoodie.

THE PATRIOTS are in pursuit of history, chasing a fourth Super Bowl in seven years and the second perfect season in NFL history, after a 24--20 victory over the Colts on Sunday that ran their record to 9--0. They are a synchronous, steamrollering force, from the front office through the coaching staff to the players. No unit better personifies the soul of the franchise than the linebackers, a collection of veterans for whom greatness is both a moment to be cherished and just another day at the office.

"We've always had chemistry in that room," says Bruschi. "But in the other championship years [2001, '03, '04] we were younger guys. Now we have so many more years under our belt. We appreciate everything that's going on. The wins, the jokes, the people, everything."

They play in a system that Belichick has coached for a quarter century. In simplest terms it's a basic 3--4, with Colvin and Vrabel on the outside and Thomas, Bruschi and Seau in a three-man platoon on the inside. They are part of a defensive philosophy that relies on preparation and versatility to limit an offense's options. "On first and second down New England is a pretty basic 3--4 with good technical football," says Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. "On third down, that's when it gets more interesting, as you're trying to figure out who's rushing, who's not rushing, what they're trying to take away. And the linebackers are all really good football players."

More important, they all fit a Belichick prototype. "A lot of teams draft linebackers to fill specific needs: one guy to be a vertical dynamo, just get up the field and rush the passer another guy to just stuff the run in the middle of the field," says one NFL team staffer. "Bill is looking for a little different guy, somebody who is multidimensional, who can drop or rush, stop the run or pursue. And he's got to be football smart, because there is a lot more responsibility than in a lot of other systems."

Banks says, "It's a system of interchangeable parts, so the offense can't pick out who's rushing and who's dropping off. And accountability is big. The defense is set up for everybody to execute, and if one guy doesn't execute, everybody knows it. There's tremendous peer pressure. You come off the field, and Bill says, 'Who got blocked?' You get confessions."

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