by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff
September 4, 2009
When Tedy Bruschi retired from the Patriots last week after a 13-year career, blogs and messageboards began buzzing. Among the expected accolades came a few self-proclaimed voices of reason, people who felt the need to remind us that Bruschi was “just a football player.”
These issues can get complicated. Allow me to explain.
Over time, humans tend to become attached to people, places, and things. If you live in the same spot for 13 years, you’re going to give it one last, longing glance before leaving it. In a similar way, long-term pets becomes more than just pets. Even if you own a car for over a decade, you might give it a name and pat the dashboard once in a while.
With Bruschi’s consistent effort, it’s easy to see how he reached fans beyond the field. Coach Bill Parcells drafted him in the third round, 86th overall. Coming off a rough 6-10 campaign in 1995, Parcells looked to improve a defense ranked 25th out of 30 teams. Bruschi, the national sack leader out of Arizona’s “Desert Swarm” defense, fit into his plans.
The undersized college defensive end did whatever he could, starting out as a special-teamer and situational pass-rusher his rookie year and developing into a starting outside linebacker the next season. After injuries to starters Ted Johnson and Bryan Cox in 2001, Bruschi found himself in the middle, in more ways than one.
Below, some plays that stuck out over a long, prosperous career…
Sunday, February 3, 2002 – NE 20, STL 17: Four tackles. That’s what the box score says. Such a low number, considering how well New England’s defense tamped down St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” in Super Bowl 36. If you believe that ex-Rams running back Marshall Faulk shows an anti-Patriots bias in his TV commentating, you have Bruschi to blame (or, as the case may be, praise).
With a fleet of defensive backs and unorthodox alignments, Coach Bill Belichick let outside linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest loose as Bruschi held down the inside. This worked well enough to fuel Rams coach Mike Martz’s obsession with the pass. Had Martz called on Faulk to run the ball four or five more times, had Bruschi failed to patrol the middle and keep his team as fired up as he did, maybe Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri wouldn’t have had their chances at history.
That happened over seven years ago. In some ways, it seems like another lifetime.
Sunday, December 7, 2003 – NE 12, MIA 0: Here’s the scene that has been replayed dozens of times, though I have yet to hear a complaint. New England needed to beat Miami in order to nail down the top spot in the AFC East. Leading 3-0 in conditions fit for a St. Bernard, the defense seemed to have the game under control, but one slip by a defensive back could have turned a six-yard slant into disaster. Miami QB Jay Fiedler dropped back and fired the ball to his right. In simplest terms, Bruschi picked off the pass and stepped into the end zone, sealing what would end up as a 12-0 victory.
But watch the replay again. It happens too quickly for the camera to find it. Fiedler fires the ball and it seems to disappear, our point of view jerking back to Bruschi striding and sliding into the end zone. We see Matt Chatham and Milloy exulting, their short, choppy steps taking them through the gray muck to Bruschi, smiling as if he’s just pulled off a surprise party for everyone in attendance. Cue the snow as confetti. How appropriate.
Sunday, January 16, 2005 – NE 20, IND 3: After New England beat up Indianapolis in the 2003 AFC Championship, pass-interference rules got more “emphasis” in 2004, allowing Colts receivers more breathing room. This garnered two substantial results: quarterback Peyton Manning’s regular-season MVP award and a Patriots team with an us-against-the-world mindset.
The Colts thought that tighter officiating would give them a better chance in the 2004 divisional round. Bruschi tempered those hopes before the end of the half. With Indy driving, Dominic Rhodes gathered in a screen pass and turned upfield, only to have Bruschi brickwall him behind the line. That play in itself might have been enough, but – as he was wont to do – the linebacker took the extra inch, ripping the ball out of Rhodes’ hands to end the drive and give his team possession at their own 41.
It appears so simple, taking the ball out of Rhodes’ tenuous grasp. No problem. A closer examination shows Bruschi hitting Rhodes helmet-to-helmet, yet somehow having the wherewithal to bring his hands down and tear the ball away. Some players may have remained satisfied with a big hit, knocking down the ball carrier and performing some chest-pounding routine. Not him.
Bruschi summarized this game awareness best during his retirement press conference, when asked about his interception vs. Detroit in 2002:
“…it was a blitz and I was rushing, which is what I always did in college. But as you’re rushing, I had to recognize the pass protection. And if you recognize the pass protection as it’s coming to you, then you drop back into pass coverage, which is what I had learned since being here. When you’re dropping back in pass coverage, look and read the route and see if there’s a hot route that’s going to be thrown because you know the blitzer is coming from the other side. Reading while you’re in pass coverage [was] another thing I had to learn. So you see the hot, now you’ve got to look back. You’ve got to look back and see if the ball is coming because you think the quarterback is going to throw it because he has to because your blitzer is coming from the other side. This is all the thought process that goes on on that one play.”
Training and instincts. Aggression and awareness. Bruschi combined those elements of football as well as anyone.
Sunday, October 30, 2005 – NE 21, BUF 16: You wouldn’t think a non-playoff game in the middle of a disappointing season would end up as the most important contest in Bruschi’s career, but you also wouldn’t think that a man who suffered a stroke in February would come back to play professional football in eight months. Throughout the game that had fans countrywide flinching during every one of his seven official tackles, Bruschi held up.
Many fans thought he shouldn’t have been on the field. It’s only football, we said. Play it safe. But, after the failed experiments of Monty Biesel and Chad Brown in the middle, Bruschi found himself at home there – a reunion of sorts – notching 62 tackles in ten games. As Bruschi came back, so did the Patriots, going from 3-3 before the Buffalo matchup to 7-3 the rest of the year.
Bruschi came to an organization that had experienced one Super Bowl in its history, famous for its lopsided result. He leaves a team with three trophies and a league-wide respect that seemed unattainable in 1996. So you’ll excuse the fans who think of 54 as more than a number on a jersey. After 13 years, humans become familiar and attached. That attachment gets stronger when its target does so much for so long.
Tedy Bruschi, just a football player?
Email Chris Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org