Monday, February 11, 2008

Mike Vrabel: The Most Efficient Pass Catcher in NFL History

Mike Vrabel at center of Pats' greatness

January 29, 2008


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Mike Vrabel looked around the tent outside the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa and found himself in good company.

Diagonally across the makeshift room was fellow linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who has played in every Patriots Super Bowl since his rookie season of 1996.

Immediately to Vrabel's left was Kevin Faulk, whose subtle contributions were invaluable in three Super Bowl wins. With a 90-degree tilt of his head, Vrabel could make eye contact with Richard Seymour, a Pro Bowl fixture at defensive end.

But perhaps none has been more integral to the Patriots' Super Bowl success -- they will try to win their fourth championship in seven seasons Sunday -- than Vrabel.

Not bad for a guy who at one point contemplated retiring after four seasons, thinking his career would be little more than a footnote in the Pittsburgh Steelers' media guide.

"To really look back ... sometimes I still have to pinch myself," Vrabel said this week.

A standout defensive end at Ohio State, Vrabel was taken by the Steelers in the third round of the 1997 draft but never found a home there. From his rookie season through 2000, he never started and had just seven sacks in 51 games.

Despite a mundane career to that point, the Patriots still sought out Vrabel and signed him to a free-agent deal in March 2001.

"Every year, we've brought guys in who have helped the team, added to our team," Vrabel said.

That year, it was Vrabel, and New England has reaped the benefits. Very early on, the Patriots made Vrabel a starter, and he has responded with 44 sacks in seven seasons -- including 12 1/2 this year.

He has plugged holes as an inside and outside linebacker, but much of his success this season has been because he's been able to focus solely on playing the outside -- and rushing the quarterback on a nearly every-down basis.

Perhaps most impressive, his imprint has been on each Super Bowl:

• Early against the Rams, Vrabel rushed from the outside into the face of Kurt Warner, halting Warner's follow-through and forcing a fluttering pass that Ty Law intercepted and ran back for a touchdown.

• His best game came against the Panthers, when he had two sacks, a forced fumble and a juggling touchdown catch.

• And against the Eagles, Vrabel added another sack and a touchdown catch.

Vrabel's defensive career was reborn when he arrived in New England, and he's even made his mark on offense, becoming the most efficient pass catcher in NFL history. His 10 career receptions have all gone for 1- or 2-yard touchdowns -- and it's a safe bet he will have another opportunity near the goal line Sunday against the Giants.

"For all the great things Bill (Belichick, the head coach) does ... he has faith in his assistants," Vrabel said. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the offensive staff "give me the nuts and bolts when I go over there. They tell me, 'Just don't mess it up.'"

Given what he's done with his second chance with the Patriots, that's the last thing Vrabel would do.

"We've won three Super Bowls," he said. "I would say this has exceeded any expectations I had."

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