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Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Often-overlooked Brooks has spot reserved in Canton

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Derrick Brooks
Derrick Brooks may or may not be the best linebacker of all time. But his impact on the position as well as the Buccaneers' franchise is undeniable, writes Pat Yasinskas.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When Michael Strahan announced his retirement Monday, a door automatically popped open in Canton, Ohio.

Five summers from now, he'll join Brett Favre in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. With Strahan, there is no doubt he'll go in on the first ballot.

How many active players can you say that about with absolute certainty?

Give yourself 10 seconds and spill out your answers. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady -- yeah, that's obvious. LaDainian Tomlinson's probably right there, too. Now, take a little more time to go beyond the glamour positions and teams.

Think about the one remaining guy who might be the best ever at what he does. If you still haven't got an answer, go back and look at some film of Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks in the late 1990s or the first five or six years of this decade.

It would be a stretch to call Brooks the best linebacker ever, but it would be a stretch to call anybody (and that includes Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus) the best linebacker ever. The position is too varied because of different schemes and responsibilities.

Taylor was a phenomenal pass-rusher and Butkus could stuff the run like no other. Guys such as Derrick Thomas, Jack Lambert and Jack Ham excelled in their niches, and Junior Seau is headed for the Hall of Fame if he continues playing this season or not.

But has there ever been a more complete linebacker than Brooks? Has there ever been a linebacker who's played at Brooks' level for as long as Brooks has? Has there ever been a linebacker who has done more for a franchise than Brooks?

I say no.

The world has known Derrick Brooks as a very good player for a long time. He's been selected to 10 Pro Bowls and made nine All-Pro teams. But, outside of Tampa, he's probably not going to come up in many conversations about the greatest players ever. That's a mistake.

Part of it is his position, which isn't especially glamorous, unless you're playing somewhere like Chicago (Butkus) or New York (Taylor). Part of it is that Brooks isn't the least bit flamboyant. And part of it is because, for much of Brooks' career, the Bucs haven't been plastered all over prime-time television.

But don't sell this guy short. We'll get to the statistics in a minute, but let's start with the big picture. If you want to talk in the broadest, most impressive terms, Brooks changed a position and a franchise.

When Brooks came into the league in 1995, the Bucs wore those Creamsicle uniforms, sported a picture of an alleged pirate on their helmets and lost games as regularly as any franchise ever has. At the same time, linebackers around the league were either pass-rushers or run-stuffers.

Then, along came a nice, humble, supposedly undersized kid from Florida State and everything changed. Within a couple of years, the Bucs were winning and the talk of them moving to Sacramento or Orlando subsided. A new stadium popped up on Dale Mabry Highway, and the Bucs got uniforms that actually made them look tough.

Sure, guys such as Tony Dungy, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, played big roles in the resurgence. But nobody did more than Brooks -- and that stayed a constant long after the rest of that bunch was gone (or in Alstott's case, reduced to being a role player).

Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the best assistant in the league to never be a head coach, re-invented linebacker play with Brooks. They put him on the weak side and, most important of all, put him in space.

It's as a space linebacker that Brooks falls into the same stratosphere as Taylor as a pass-rusher or Butkus as a run-stuffer. Brooks, 35, has slowed a bit the past year or two. But, up until then, he played in space like no linebacker in history.

People around the league talk about the Tampa 2 defense, which has spread to about a third of the league's teams, and primarily think of the secondary. But Brooks is the guy who really made the Tampa 2 defense take hold because he made guys such as Lynch and Ronde Barber better than they ever should have been.

A lot of linebackers around the league now can drop into coverage nicely … on third downs. The Bucs used to drop Brooks into coverage on first and second downs because he could cover like a defensive back (24 career interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns in Tampa Bay's 2002 Super Bowl season).

But Brooks wasn't just about playing the pass. Against the run, the Bucs also have let him play in space. Long after the Bucs switched from Dungy to coach Jon Gruden before the 2002 season, Kiffin's philosophy about the run remained the same -- pretty much assume somebody would block the other 10 guys on any given play and let Brooks run free to make the tackle.

He almost always did. Tackles aren't an official NFL statistic, but depending on where you look, Brooks has somewhere between 1,600 and 1,900 in his career. Veteran coaches and personnel guys will tell you that when it comes to technique, there's never been a more fundamentally sound tackler than Brooks.

Yeah, Brooks has only 13½ career sacks, but the Bucs have asked him to blitz about as many times in his career as Taylor did in an average season. There's no doubt Brooks is nearing the end of the road. He lost a step (which made him faster than only 90 percent of the league's linebackers) in 2006 and he started coming off the field in some passing situations last year.

But, in whatever role he plays this season, Brooks is still the heart and soul of the Bucs.

Take this scenario from last week: There rightfully was community outrage when the Bucs re-signed troubled tight end Jerramy Stevens and quarterback Jeff Garcia was talking about his desire for a contract extension. The media clustered around Brooks.

"We're one big brotherhood and one big family, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to be rosy,'' Brooks said. "Sometimes I come in here and have a frown on my face about something. We can't let it be a distraction. We just have to take advantage of the time we're here and focus on preparation.''

That's precisely what Brooks has done for the past 13 years. Sounds like a guy you want in your huddle.

Especially if you're talking about a huddle of the greatest defense of all time.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.