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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vrabel ultimate ‘utility infielder’



By Bud Barth


September 9, 2007

If you were going to build a New England Patriot from scratch, he’d probably look a lot like Mike Vrabel.

Smart, versatile, hard-working, durable, a natural leader.

And yet the Patriots not only didn’t build Vrabel, they didn’t even draft him. That was the good sense of the Steelers, who plucked Vrabel — then a pre-med major and defensive end — from Ohio State in the third round of the 1997 draft.

But Pittsburgh gave up way too early on the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder. Vrabel signed with New England as an unrestricted free agent in March 2001, and his career took off like a Trident missile.

“Well, it gave it a good shot in the arm,” agreed the multitalented linebacker, who is beginning his 11th NFL season and was voted a captain by his teammates for the third straight year. “Change is always a good thing. After four years (in Pittsburgh), things were pretty stagnant — at least in my career.”

After never starting a game for the Steelers, playing mainly on special teams and in nickel and dime packages, Vrabel started 12 of 16 games for the Patriots in the 2001 season, plus all three playoff games as New England won its first of three Super Bowls in four years.

He was an instant hit. In his first start at Miami, he picked off a Jay Fiedler pass on the Dolphins’ first offensive play, setting up a Patriots TD, and wound up posting career highs in 2001 — all of which were later eclipsed — in tackles, solo tackles and sacks.

“Coming up here and being with Bill (Belichick) and Romeo (Crennel, then the defensive coordinator) and Rob Ryan (outside linebackers coach) — guys I really remember meeting early on — helped me out as a player,” Vrabel said.

Vrabel had a career-high 9-1/2 sacks in 2003, the most by any Patriot during the Belichick era and the most in New England since Willie McGinest had 9-1/2 in 1996. And that was despite missing three games while injured.

Soon, just tackles and sacks weren’t enough. What started out “as a gimmick” in practice, according to Vrabel, soon became one of the Patriots’ top goal-line weapons on offense.

Vrabel, lining up as a tight end, evolved into the No. 1 option in the end zone for quarterback Tom Brady, who has connected eight times with the 32-year-old for short-yardage touchdowns, including twice in the playoffs.

In the Super Bowl XXVIII win over Carolina in February 2004, Vrabel had two sacks and a 1-yard TD catch. In December 2005 against the New York Jets — today’s season-opening opponent — he became the first player in history to record two touchdowns and a sack in the same game since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982.

But Vrabel’s versatility doesn’t end there. Strictly an outside linebacker and defensive end to start his career, Vrabel proved to be strong enough to move inside, too, and has played both spots in the Patriots’ confusing 3-4 defense.

“It’s not like he’s just a utility infielder,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I think he actually plays his position very well when he just has to play the one spot — not that he has (just) one spot, but you know what I mean, as an outside linebacker.”

Partly because Vrabel’s speed makes him a stronger weapon on the outside, the Patriots have decided to install free agent pickup Adalius Thomas — who played mostly outside linebacker with Baltimore — on the inside in their 3-4 alignment.

“When you take into account all the linebackers’ strengths,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees pointed out, “sometimes you make a decision based on a lot of guys, and not necessarily one guy.”

Vrabel doesn’t mind. He relishes the flexibility that has made him the prototype Patriot.

“That’s certainly been a reason I’ve had the success that I’ve had here, trying to contribute any way I can,” he said. “Up until a year ago, that included playing on special teams, too, and helping the team in that regard.”

Vrabel’s sturdiness is also becoming legendary. After missing those three games in 2003, Vrabel has played in 69 consecutive games, including playoffs, over the last three-plus seasons, starting 55 of the last 56.

Yet with the offseason signings of Thomas, wide receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and versatile fullback Sammy Morris, plus the training camp holdout of defensive back Asante Samuel and the suspension of safety Rodney Harrison, much of the preseason news has been about players who haven’t even seen a down of action for New England.

Does that leave established guys like Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, the heart and soul of the Patriots’ defense, feeling neglected?

“I don’t think so,” Vrabel said, launching into the Patriots’ all-for-one, one-for-all mantra. “I don’t think anybody’s done anything (yet). We all need to re-establish ourselves every year, every week, every day in practice. I think we have a group of guys that do that. There’s going to be weeks where some guys will play better, and other weeks where other guys will.

“It’s amazing what a group can do when nobody’s worried about who gets the credit.”

Today, the New England defense will be without Harrison and the injured Richard Seymour against the Jets, but it still will have old reliables like Vrabel, Bruschi & Co., who are used to holding down the fort short-handed.

“I think if you look historically, we’ve always done well when guys have been out,” Vrabel said. “I think those guys are going to be missed, but … we’ve always had guys to step up. That’s the nature of this business. I don’t think it will be any different in this situation.”

The age of some of the Patriots’ key defenders — Vrabel is 32, Bruschi 34, Harrison 35 — has been a source of concern among those who wonder how long they can continue to perform at a championship level.

“We wouldn’t be out here if we didn’t think we can still play, and Bill wouldn’t have us on the team,” Vrabel said. “They wouldn’t waste the time and the money and the resources they put into us if they thought we were too old.”

It’s too bad Vrabel has no plans to extend his pre-med studies and become a doctor because he has hands like a surgeon. As if just to show his TD catches were no fluke, he made a spectacular lunging leap during a training camp practice last month that ended with a one-handed interception as he snared the ball with a gloved left hand.

That kind of deft touch could be massaging hearts or sewing up incisions, but Vrabel wants no part of becoming a doctor, thank you.

“No, absolutely not,” he said, admitting he chose pre-med only because he wanted “a good, solid major … for something to fall back on” in case he didn’t make it in the NFL.

“I know plenty of guys who have done that (gone to medical school) and are still continuing that process. They’re not even doctors yet, and I’m going into my 11th year in the NFL. So, (when) you look at the amount of time they’ve dedicated their life to school and medicine, I think I’ll pursue a different career when I’m done playing.”

That might be as a coach. Vrabel, who calls Belichick “the best coach I’ve been associated with at any point in my career,” said he has entertained the idea of a spot on the sidelines when he’s done banging heads. He’s almost a player-coach now.

“He’s definitely a leader on our team,” said fellow linebacker Eric Alexander, whose locker is right next to Vrabel’s. “Mike is kind of like a teacher, like a professor on the field. From a versatility standpoint, he can teach you everything there is to know about the linebacker position because he’s done it all.”

And though the thought of coaching intrigues him, Vrabel hopes it’s a long way off.

“I think (coaching is) always a possibility,” said the former Buckeye, who is under contract through the 2009 season, by which time he’ll be 34. “I enjoy coaching; I enjoy staying in football. But right now I’m a player, and I’m going to try to remain one as long as I can.”

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