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Monday, February 11, 2008

Back On Outside, Vrabel Excels



All-Pro, Pro Bowl Selection For First Time

By DAVID HEUSCHKEL

January 29, 2008



Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel has said he doesn't always agree with his coach despite Bill Belichick's success.

But Vrabel has coaching aspirations, so it would make sense to apply what he's learned from one of the best.

One thing Belichick did that worked was to move Vrabel back to outside linebacker. He was moved inside last season following a season-ending injury to Junior Seau Nov. 26 against the Bears. The signing of free agent linebacker Adalius Thomas and the return of Seau, allowed for that to happen.

Vrabel responded by having his best season. He was voted to the Pro Bowl and was named All-Pro for the first time in his 11-year career. And he's in the Super Bowl for the fourth time.

"I don't know how many guys come into the NFL thinking they are going to play 11 years, first of all," Vrabel said. "To win three Super Bowls, go to a Pro Bowl, I would say that it has probably exceeded any expectation at the time I was a third-round draft pick of the Steelers in 1997."

The Steelers released Vrabel after the 2000 season and the Patriots signed him. He is one of the best acquisitions in the Belichick era.

Vrabel goes about his business the way a construction worker does. He's all hard hat, but uses his brains as much as his brawn, a trait that has allowed him to thrive in Belichick's 3-4 defense.

"He's one of the brains behind the operation," safety Rodney Harrison said. "A smart, intelligent guy that just makes huge plays, makes big plays, sacks, forced fumbles. Just a tremendous leader on our team and he's really the quarterback of our defense."

Vrabel led the Patriots with 12 1/2 sacks, the third highest total in a season by a Patriots player and the most in 20 years. He led the team with 16 quarterback hits, showing he hasn't lost a step even at 32. He tied his career high with four forced fumbles.

"He's done a terrific job of performing at the outside linebacker position," Seau said. "You've got to remember, Vrabel's been one of the most versatile, unselfish players on this team. Whenever you're taking a player that's an outside linebacker and putting him in the middle because you need it for the team and he goes out there and performs, that's a credit to him and then he gets a chance to play outside linebacker all year and look what he does."

Vrabel also moved inside in 2005. He played outside the first five games before moving inside for the final 11.

Vrabel's versatility is not limited to the defensive side of the ball. He continues to be a goal line threat lining up as an extra tight end, catching two touchdown passes this season to give him 10 for his career.

Numbers-wise, Vrabel hasn't had a strong postseason. In two games, he has four tackles and hasn't had a sack.

But he has been known to make big plays in the Super Bowl. In his first, against the Rams six years ago, Vrabel pressured quarterback Kurt Warner into throwing an errant pass that Ty Law intercepted and returned 47 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Vrabel had a huge game in a 32-29 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. He had six tackles, including two sacks, and forced a fumble. He also caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that gave the Patriots a 29-22 lead.

The following year, Vrabel caught another touchdown pass in a 24-21 victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

"It's tough to get to this point," Vrabel said. "If you look at all the great teams from our conference and from the NFC, it's tough. We don't ever look back and compare and say, 'This was the easy way' or 'This is the way we did it then.' We're always caught in now and what this football team is."

Vrabel has been caught in the now for seven seasons.

"Obviously I have a lot of respect for Bill and what he's done with this football team and the decisions that he makes. I certainly don't always agree with everything that he says or does, but I think ultimately the end result is very positive," Vrabel said. "He gave me an opportunity to come here. He said I won't ever promise anybody a spot, but there'll be an opening for you to compete and be an every-down player. ... He's not really caught up in the guys that are supposed to be good players or allegedly good players. He wants guys that are going to go out there and work, be smart and are dependable and consistent. Those are the kind of guys we have on this football team."

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