Sunday, November 06, 2005

Vrabel doing his part, and then some

Patriots Beat by Tom E. Curran

Sunday, November 6, 2005

FOXBORO -- One of the Patriots' tight ends had 14 tackles last week. One of their kickoff return blockers had touchdowns in each of the last two Super Bowls. The guy who often plays free safety on the scout team for the Patriots can be seen 90 minutes before every game, running 40-yard corner patterns seamlessly and catching the ball the way you're supposed to. That guy is one guy: Mike Vrabel.

On a team that reveres players for their versatility, Vrabel takes it to an extreme level. He doesn't just play other positions, he excels in them.

Last week against the Bills, in just his second game playing inside linebacker, Vrabel had 14 tackles.

"He's established himself as one of the better linebackers in the league," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Inside, outside, occasionally on offense and always on special teams, the cerebral Vrabel is a dream for his own coaches, a nightmare for opposing ones. He thinks about the game as hard as he plays the game.

"I think Mike is going to be a coach at some point and a real good one because he has a very good understanding of the game," said Belichick. "The total game, not just one isolated spot."

Versatility can be a blessing and a curse. It can get a player a spot on a club, but it can also rob him of a chance to devote all his mental and physical energy to one position each week.

But Vrabel knows his versatility in New England is valued. So much so that he's been given two robust extensions since signing with the Patriots before the 2001 season. Before this year, he signed a deal that runs through 2009 and has a potential value of more than $16 million.

"I'm very, very, very comfortable with where I'm at right now," he said Friday. "It certainly has helped me stick around. In coming to New England it helped me and it did in 2002 and again in 2005 when they re-signed me. I won't say that if I just did one specific thing (it would be better). I would never say that. It is what it is and we're happy with that."

Vrabel's immediate assignment at inside linebacker is going to mitigate his ability to get to the quarterback. It's also going to get him beat up a little more as he stands in the middle of the defense, taking on guards, centers, fullbacks and running backs.

It's no skin off his nose.

"When you do all this it gives you uniqueness and I think you take pride in that," he said. "You don't see a lot of guys play tight end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and special teams. I'm not going to say, 'This is too much.' Plus, it gives me a little bit to hang on later in this career.

He's into his ninth year now and has turned 30. But Vrabel -- even in practice -- has shown a willingness to simply play the game hard.

"On scout team, he plays positions he doesn't normally play," said Belichick. "For instance, he plays free safety a lot (who wants to see a 6-5, 261-pound free safety coming at them?). When he plays on the scout team on punt or kickoffs or something like that, he's not just out there jogging through to get it over with, he's trying to come up with something creative to make the guy he's playing against better. He picks up things quickly and sees things and when you use him in different areas of the game in multiple roles he handles all those well and he does them confidently."

"Bill will tell you, 'To those who much is given, much is expected,' " Vrabel said.

For a player who's been a staple of the Patriots' success the past four seasons, there must be a modicum of frustration in his unit's sudden inconsistency.

"It hurts mentally when you lose," he said. "You're down when you lose and that's what it's been every other week -- win, lose, win, lose, etc. But when you're in the routine of the season, you don't get caught up in evaluating and taking stock. You do with what you've got and who you've got that week."

As it turns out, Vrabel could be the Patriots' best option at a number of the team's linebacker spots right now. He goes where he is told. He knows he is very, very necessary.

"Am I tired at the end of a game?" he asks. "Yeah. Am I supposed to be? Yeah. Do I play every snap and 10 special-teams plays? Yeah. But I will never complain about playing."

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