Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ready, Willing and Vrabel

Outside linebacker, inside linebacker, even tight end -- no matter what the Patriots need, he's ready and willing

By Jackie MacMullan, Globe Staff September 3, 2006

FOXBOROUGH -- He forgets sometimes.

Happened just last week. Mike Vrabel broke from the huddle and positioned himself at inside linebacker, but when Tom Brady dropped back to pass, Vrabel instinctively reverted to the coverage responsibilities of the outside linebacker position, where he has established his reputation as an agitator and intimidator.

"I was in the wrong coverage," Vrabel confessed. "I had to stop for a second and look at myself. Then I said, 'Oh well,' and moved on."

He has been Patriots coach Bill Belichick's Everyman for five seasons now, willing and able to handle special teams assignments, rotating linebacker positions, and some occasional trickery at tight end. He is no decoy during his intermittent offensive forays, but a bona fide receiver specializing in touchdowns (8 receptions, 8 scores ). He is everything Belichick loves in a football player: smart, fearless, strong, well-conditioned, and versatile.

Yet sometimes you wonder whether his versatility betrays him. No one was happier than Vrabel in 2003 when he was flying in from the outside, recording a career- and team-high 9.5 sacks. They were the most sacks recorded by a Patriot in the Belichick era, and the most in team history since Willie McGinest recorded 9.5 in 1996. Vrabel's quickness and ability to read offenses made him a natural for the position.

But last season, when Ted Johnson abruptly retired, Roman Phifer did not return, and Tedy Bruschi began his long road back from a stroke, Vrabel began preparing for the inevitable. He played the final 11 games of the regular season and playoffs at inside linebacker, and wound up leading the team in tackles with 114.

This season, Vrabel was supposed to return to his customary outside position, but with Bruschi recovering from a broken wrist, Vrabel has found himself on the inside again.

"I'm having fun, because it's different," Vrabel said. "It's a challenge. I look at it as a compliment the coaching staff believes they can move me inside and not have our defense fall off. But it could change."

When Bruschi returns, Vrabel will likely replace Tully Banta-Cain as a starting outside linebacker (along with Rosevelt Colvin), leaving Bruschi and newly signed veteran Junior Seau to handle the primary inside chores.
Simple enough? It isn't. Juggling various responsibilities for a complicated defensive scheme is harder than Vrabel makes it seem.

"It gets overlooked, what he's doing for us," said safety Rodney Harrison. "He has 10 sacks one year, and no Pro Bowl consideration. Then we ask him to come inside because we have injuries. He goes back outside, but then he's got to come back in again, and he never lets it affect his psyche.

"It would be easy to get discouraged. Another guy would be saying, 'If I'm inside, there's no way I'm getting 9 or 10 sacks. I had 10 sacks in '03, so this is going to make me look like I'm losing it. This is bad for my career.'

"Do you think for a second Mike Vrabel is going to say anything like that? Not a chance. He's thinking, 'I'm inside. Cool. Let's do some damage in here.' "

Making an impression

It's easy to identify Vrabel now as one of the cornerstones of the Patriots defense, a veteran with the experience and credentials to be a locker room leader. It's almost as easy to forget that he came to New England in 2001 as a relatively anonymous special teams player from the Steelers, a free agent on the fringe.

"He took the scenic route to the NFL," observed Seau. "He wasn't some first-round pick that was catered to. He was one of those fourth-and-1 guys whose career was always in the balance, who had to worry about being cut, about finding a way onto the field, about getting noticed.

"Guys like that don't take anything for granted, even after they've made it. But I'll tell you this much: After watching Mike up close these past few weeks, you wonder how this guy ever slipped through the cracks."

Vrabel can recall walking into the Patriots locker room the first day and encountering the towering presence of McGinest, who challenged anyone and everyone to outwork him in the weight room. Nor has he forgotten how badly he wanted to fit in -- at any position.

"I felt like I was trying to do too much when I first got here," he said.

"Kind of an eager beaver. It was really my first chance at playing, and I didn't want to lose out. Tedy told me, 'Just be you. Be smart. Be consistent. You don't have to impress anybody.' "

He did anyway, because he was such a quick study. Vrabel, who wants to be a coach someday, caught the attention of the veterans by mastering schemes, asking questions, even suggesting changes to the game plan.

"He's the smartest football player I've ever been on the field with," Harrison declared. "Like one of the coaches."

Because of that, teammates maintain, Vrabel is able to take certain liberties with the staff, including Belichick himself.

"The guy should have been a comedian," offered defensive end Jarvis Green. "We'll be sitting in meetings, and he'll come out with something that the rest of us might be thinking but would never say out loud.

"The other day, the coaches were laying out all the stuff they wanted us to do, and all of a sudden Mike is yelling, `What do you think we are? Your whipping boys?' I mean, I was thinking that, but saying it? I'll leave that to Mike."

He has become adept at knowing when to ease the tension with a wisecrack, or spice up the drudgery with a dig.

"I don't mind joking with Bill, and he doesn't mind telling me to shut the [expletive] up," Vrabel explained. "I do it because it breaks up the monotony, whether it's with Bill or someone else."

A leading man

With McGinest gone this year and Harrison missing most of last season, it was only logical that Vrabel would step up and assume some veteran leadership responsibilities. Richard Seymour, Bruschi, Harrison, and Vrabel are the defensive core the younger players look to for advice. According to Green, Vrabel entertains a steady stream of questions from rookies and young prospects throughout the preseason.

"They choose him," Green said, "because he treats them the way he'd like to be treated himself."

"I don't know how I got here [to a position of leadership]," Vrabel said with a shrug. ``I don't look at myself like that."

He has grown accustomed to a roster in flux, and that means adding new faces and subtracting old friends.

"Larry [Izzo] and I were saying the other day we're the only ones from the 2001 free agent class who are left," Vrabel said. "We're always changing here. The young guys have so many questions, but I tell them, 'Hey, it took me time to learn myself.'

"We all have our ways. The way Junior does things might be completely different than Tedy or myself. And right now, our roles haven't even really been defined."

This is nothing new for a linebacker who will go inside or outside, will score a touchdown or prevent one. Asked about Vrabel, Belichick smiled, then said, "I think Mike falls into that exceptionally versatile category."

The coach, not known for hyperbole, then rattled off Vrabel's strengths: smart, instinctive, runs well, good size, strong, powerful.

"The guy does a lot of things and he doesn't take long to get assignments down," Belichick continued. "He's able to do the techniques that need to be done for the position -- and he'll be happy to tell you that, too."

That is true. Mike Vrabel is proud to be the Everyman.

Sure beats the fringe free agent taking the scenic route.

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