Ahorde of eager camera crews quickly surrounded Derrick Brooks, but he just kept jogging until he was off the field. Brooks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' All-Pro outside linebacker, had maintained a stoic expression in the waning minutes of his team's 31-6 NFC divisional playoff victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, and now, seconds after the clock had run out, he wasn't about to start doing interviews. There was much more work to be done. ¶ So after tossing his black gloves into a group of crazed fans behind the east end zone of Raymond James Stadium, Brooks raced into the tunnel and headed for the locker room. He was already thinking about this Sunday's NFC Championship Game matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, who eliminated Tampa Bay from the playoffs the last two seasons. "Trust me," Brooks said later. "As good as this season has been, it won't mean much unless we win a championship."
This is how far the Bucs have come: They don't rejoice in an NFC South title or a franchise-record 12 wins in coach Jon Gruden's first season or a berth in the conference title game. They expect more of themselves, and Brooks, who sees his job as keeping his teammates focused, won't let that be forgotten. For despite the constant chatter provided by loquacious defensive tackle Warren Sapp and combustible wideout Keyshawn Johnson, Brooks is Tampa Bay's quiet catalyst. "We have some big mouths on this team, and it always appears like they're the leaders," says cornerback Ronde Barber. "But Derrick was a unanimous choice for team captain. That's how much we respect him."
And here's what media around the country think of him: Last week Brooks, a six-time Pro Bowler, was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, collecting 36 of 48 votes. Then, against the 49ers, Brooks showed why he was a runaway winner. In addition to seven tackles he had an interception, a fumble recovery and a half-sack. By the fourth quarter he was pacing the sideline, watching backups finish off a frustrated Niners offense that produced only 228 yards and committed five turnovers.
Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said that his team "ran into a wall that we just couldn't knock down." At the foundation was Brooks, who led Tampa Bay with 170 tackles this season, intercepted a career-high five passes and scored four touchdowns on returns. Yet for all the accolades, he hasn't reveled in his belated recognition as the game's top defender. "I'm doing the same things this year that I've always done," says Brooks, who has led the Bucs in tackles six times in his eight-year career. "The main difference now is, I've turned some of those plays into touchdowns."
Brooks is more concerned with the legacy of the Tampa Bay defense. The Bucs had the NFL's top-ranked defense this season and led the league in fewest points allowed (196) and most interceptions (31). Brooks wants his unit to be linked with the famous defenses of the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but he knows that won't happen unless Tampa Bay wins a Super Bowl. With the offense showing more firepower than it has in years, the Bucs are better equipped than ever to make a title run.
Philadelphia's strategy in a 20-10 win on Oct 20 was to wear down the Bucs with a steady rushing attack, and on Sunday, Brooks will be tested again. Tampa Bay's 4-3 scheme is designed to keep offensive linemen from getting direct shots at Brooks, freeing him to flow to the ball. He'll be asked to stifle receivers on underneath routes, chase running backs sideline to sideline and run down quarterback Donovan McNabb in the open field. "The best part of his game is his awareness," says Reggie McKenzie, the Green Bay Packers' director of pro personnel. "Their defense is all about filling the right gap, and he sees things as they're happening. He has that innate ability to always be in the right spot."
Brooks is an equally valuable player off the field. He teaches younger linebackers how to study videotape and lectures teammates on managing their money. When tackle Kenyatta Walker stormed out of the locker room after being listed as inactive for the season opener against the New Orleans Saints, it was Brooks who calmed him down. "I tell Derrick he's like a counselor around here," says defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "He's always talking to people about their problems. But I've also cautioned him to be mindful of his own responsibilities. Sometimes he has to realize he can't do everything"
Brooks can't help himself. "I'm not a control freak, but I do like being hands-on with everything I do," he says. "Otherwise I think things won't be as successful as I'd like." Brooks never wants this team to return to the miserable straits it was in when he arrived as a first-round draft pick in 1995, back when apathetic veterans filled the roster and Tampa Bay was in the midst of 14 consecutive losing seasons.
Those days are gone—the Bucs have missed the playoffs only once since 1997—but aside from reaching the 1999 NFC Championship Game, there haven't been many postseason highlights. In fact their last three playoff losses have come by a combined score of 63-18. Such numbers led to the firing last January of coach Tony Dungy, a move that angered Brooks. However, when the two men spoke in April, Dungy told Brooks to move on and focus on leading the Bucs to a championship.
The determined look in Brooks's eyes as he left Raymond James Stadium suggests that he's gotten the message. "It's going to be a heavyweight fight next week," he said. "All I can say is, we plan on showing up for it."