Friday, August 31, 2007

Vrabel takes it one year at a time

Entering 11th NFL season, ex-Buckeye pondering future

By Christopher L. Gasper
August 26, 2007

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Mike Vrabel was the last player on the practice field, but he had company. After a recent training camp session, Vrabel was joined by his sons, Tyler and Carter, who were drop-kicking footballs through the goal posts. It was a glimpse into the possible post-football life for the Patriots linebacker.

It might not seem like it, but this is Vrabel's 11th season in the NFL and seventh in New England. The consummate Patriot, Vrabel, 32, has been so durable, adaptable and accountable that it's easy to take his accomplishments for granted. Like a car tire, he's just there and you don't fully appreciate him until he's not.

Vrabel's contract runs through 2009 and he is still playing at a high level -- last year he had his second straight 100-plus tackle season -- but it's no longer automatic he'll show up at Patriots training camp every year.

"I think you have to look at what the team wants to do and what the player wants to do and how he feels physically," Vrabel said. "I think to say, 'Well, I'm going to try to play so many more years,' I don't think guys do that. Guys like Rodney (Harrison) and Junior (Seau), they don't do that. They prepare for each year and go at it."

Vrabel, a former Ohio State All-American, does not have imminent plans to abscond to Columbus, where he spends the offseason. His focus is on football and the upcoming season, but he's too smart not to realize he's at a point in his career where the future is measured in games, not years.

Since joining the Patriots in 2001, Vrabel has played in 16 games every season but one -- in 2003, he missed three games because of a broken right arm. But how many more shots can he take, like the one he took last year, when he was kneed in the back of the head after making the game-sealing interception in a 28-21 win over the Detroit Lions? "Hmm … probably a few more," said Vrabel, sardonically.

"I plan to play as long as I can physically play."

Vrabel has been more indispensable than a Swiss Army knife. Because of injuries or the ineffectiveness of others, he has been switched to inside linebacker during each of the past two seasons, and since 2002 he has been used in goal-line situations as a tight end on offense, catching eight passes, all for touchdowns. But the Patriots have determined the best way to use Vrabel, at least defensively, is at outside linebacker.

When the Pats delved deep into their bank account to sign linebacker Adalius Thomas, many assumed Vrabel would move inside next to his pal, Tedy Bruschi. Instead, Thomas has switched inside and the Patriots have made a commitment to keep Vrabel outside, his natural position.

As an outside linebacker, Vrabel has been a productive pass rusher -- his nine sacks in 2003 are the most of any player during the Bill Belichick era in New England -- and a reliable run-stuffer, setting the edge in the team's 3-4 scheme.

Belichick said Vrabel's versatility on defense has been valuable, but he's just as valuable on the outside.

"Mike does a good job at the position that he primarily plays in, too," Belichick said. "So it's not like he's just a utility infielder."

Unlike Thomas's big splash, the signing of Vrabel, who didn't start in four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, barely registered. But it has been a win-win for both sides, to the tune of three Super Bowl titles.

"I've been very happy with the six, going on seven years that I've had here," Vrabel said. "I probably could have gone a different direction if I hadn't signed here in 2001. So I'm fortunate of my time here and try to make the most of it."

Seau said, "Vrabel is obviously one of the mainstays of this defense. He and Bruschi, Rodney, Rosey (Colvin) and (Richard) Seymour, these guys have really helped build what we're doing today and to have them as our nucleus and to keep them intact is a big key to our defense."

As for retirement, Vrabel has an interest in coaching. The son of a football coach, Vrabel has had limited discussions with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel about returning to his alma mater. Vrabel runs a football camp in Columbus with former Buckeyes teammates Ryan Miller and Luke Fickell as part of the Second and Seven Foundation, which the three started to promote literacy throughout central Ohio.

"Coaching 10-year-olds is a little different than coaching at the college level, but certainly we'll take a look at all the options when I do decide to retire," Vrabel said.

Winning, though, will extend any career.

"When you're winning, things go fast and weeks go by fast and time goes by pretty fast," Vrabel said. "When you lose, things slow down and practices are longer and the days are longer and the weeks are longer. The time I've spent here has gone by fairly quickly and that's partly due to our success."

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