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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Versatile, reliable Vrabel is Hall of Fame material



February 3, 2008

BY MICHAEL ARACE




Pending further developments, there are 16 linebackers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There are six Ohio State Buckeyes (Sid Gillman, Lou Groza, Dante Lavelli, Jim Parker, Paul Warfield and Bill Willis) in Canton -- seven if you count coach Paul Brown. Obviously, these are very exclusive clubs, and it's likely that Mike Vrabel will add to their ranks at some point in the next 20 years.

Vrabel sneaks up on you, doesn't he?

Scouts Inc. recently took every player who will suit up for Super Bowl XLII and ranked all of the Patriots and Giants, from 1 to 106.

Vrabel was No. 10 on the list. That underrates him, but, then, what else is new?

Vrabel was a tight end when he reported to Ohio State from Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls. The Buckeyes apparently had enough big receivers, so Vrabel was moved to defensive end. No problem.

Vrabel's set school records with 36 sacks and 66 tackles for losses. He was a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. His record for sacks in a season (13) stood for 10 years, or until Vernon Gholston broke it in the recent national championship game against LSU.

This was good enough to get him picked at the bottom of the third round of the NFL draft. Apparently, there were 90 players better than Vrabel -- including four of his OSU teammates, Orlando Pace, Shawn Springs, Rob Kelly and Ty Howard -- when he came out in 1997.

The Pittsburgh Steelers made him into a backup linebacker and stuck him on special teams.

Hey, these things happen. They happen to Vrabel all the time. He spent four seasons in Pittsburgh and considered retirement when his contract reached term. Think about that for a second.

Vrabel signed a free-agent deal with the New England Patriots in 2001. The Patriots used him at outside linebacker in their 3-4. No problem. They used him at inside linebacker. No problem. They moved him back outside this season. No problem.

Vrabel had a career-high 12½ sacks this season, the most by a Patriot since Andre Tippett's 12½ in 1987. Vrabel made the Pro Bowl for the first time, at age 32.
How many games did the Patriots win? All of them.

The perception is that Vrabel isn't even the best of the aged corps of Patriots linebackers at this point. Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau get more attention. No problem.

Vrabel's numbers are adding up. He has 542 tackles, 371 solo, and 44 sacks in seven seasons with the Patriots. These figures speak to consistent production of the highest level.

Vrabel has been known to check in at tight end when the Patriots line up at the goal line. He blocks. He catches. No problem. He has eight career receptions, all for touchdowns.

Vrabel caught a touchdown pass to help the Patriots win one of their titles, a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. He also had two sacks in that game. He nearly won the MVP award, which went to quarterback Tom Brady.

Vrabel is one of 17 players to have caught two touchdown passes in Super Bowls. And he's a linebacker. At least, it is believed he is a linebacker.

Vrabel is the first and only player to have two touchdown receptions and a sack in the same game, which he did in December 2005.

During his tenure in New England, the Patriots have an 86-26 regular-season record and they've won three Super Bowls. They'll probably add a fourth title today.

A time will come when their dynasty will decline and, farther down the road, the football historians will make their assessments. Brady will lead a list of New England luminaries who will be enshrined in Canton.

Vrabel, who has been sneaking up on us for 15 years, won't sneak into the Hall. He'll be ushered into the place.

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