Wednesday, July 13, 2011
By Jim Donaldson
July 12, 2011
Mike Vrabel was a football player.
“No kidding,” I can hear you saying now. “Like we didn’t know that.”
But what I’m saying is that Mike Vrabel was a Football Player.
In capital letters.
And in every way, in every game, on every play.
Back in the days when football players stayed on the field for just about all 60 minutes, Vrabel would have been a star on both offense and defense.
The “V” in his name should stand for “versatility.”
This was obvious on defense, where he not only played both inside and outside linebacker in the Patriots’ 3-4 alignment, but was equally effective stuffing the run, rushing the passer, or dropping back in pass coverage — whether starting from a “down” position, in a three-point stance, along the line of scrimmage or standing up.
He was an integral part of a New England defense that won three Super Bowls, four conference championships, and six division titles in a span of eight seasons, from 2001 through 2008.
But what set him apart, what brings beaming smiles to the faces of Patriots fans, is what he did as a tight end.
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis loved to use him near the goal line, where Vrabel could use the 261, well-distributed pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame as a blocker, or, just as effectively — and much more enjoyably — display his soft hands and surprising quickness to work free in the end zone and catch touchdown passes from Tom Brady.
He caught 10 passes for the Patriots, and every one of them was for a touchdown — including two in Super Bowls.
He had a 1-yard TD reception in the Pats’ 32-29 win over Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, then caught another the following year — a 2-yarder in the 24-21 victory over the Eagles in Jacksonville.
“I can’t believe it,” Vrabel said after beating Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX. “Two Super Bowls — two touchdowns catches.”
He made that catch against the Eagles even after drawing a holding penalty from defensive end Jevon Kearse.
“Jevon was really getting all over me,” Vrabel said. “I was lucky enough to tip it up and hang onto it when I hit the ground.
“Charlie Weis told me before the game that, if we were down on the goal line and first-and-goal, then we were going to put the play in. I tried to put a move on Kearse, and he locked me up, but Tom put a good ball on my fingertips and I was able to tip it back to myself.”
It was that kind of athleticism that made Vrabel so valuable to the Patriots.
In that Super Bowl against the Eagles, coach Bill Belichick tried to confuse Philly QB Donovan McNabb by using only two defensive linemen. When Belichick wanted more players on the line of scrimmage, he put linebackers Vrabel and Willie McGinest there.
Philadelphia ran for only 45 yards in the game — New England racked up 112 rushing yards — and, although McNabb threw for 357 yards and three touchdowns, he was pressured consistently and wound up throwing three interceptions and being sacked four times.
Vrabel had one of those sacks, dumping McNabb for a 16-yard loss.
Only Hall of Famer Andre Tippett has had more sacks in a season for the Patriots than the 12.5 Vrabel recorded in 2007, when the Pats won 18 straight before losing the Super Bowl in the final seconds to the New York Giants.
Vrabel also led the team in sacks in 2003, with 9.5, despite missing three games because of an injury.
Playing inside or outside, up or down, rushing or dropping in coverage — even catching passes as a tight end in goal-line situations — Vrabel was athletic enough, and smart enough, to be equally effective.
Few and far between are the players who have both the talent and the intelligence to do what he did for the Patriots.
Belichick recognized that potential when he signed Vrabel, who had been a third-round draft choice of the Steelers out of Ohio State in 1997, as a free agent prior to the 2001 season.
Although he never started a game for Pittsburgh, Vrabel stepped right into the lineup in New England and remained a fixture for the Patriots until he was traded to Kansas City in 2009.
In yet another example of his versatility, he intercepted 11 passes for the Pats, returning one 24 yards for a touchdown against Carolina in 2005. It was during that same season, in a game against the Jets, that Vrabel not only caught two TD passes, but also had a sack.
As I said, the guy was a Football Player.
Now, he’s going to be a football coach, handling the linebackers at his alma mater, Ohio State.
In a statement released by the university, Belichick was quoted as saying: “Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached. He has a tremendous feel for people, players, coaches and what his team needs regardless of the situation. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player.”
He was, indeed, an excellent player for the Patriots, unfailingly giving the team whatever it needed in a variety of situations, on both sides of the ball.