Since linebacker Derrick Brooks strapped on his Bucs helmet as a rookie in 1995, it has always been team first and Brooks second. It didn’t matter how many times he needed to restructure his contract to help Tampa Bay land a player. As long as it was helping the team get better and win football games, Brooks was willing to do anything.
Brooks showed the same dedication and respect for the team when he was approached about being taken out in some nickel formations during passing situations in the 31-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Brooks was replaced by strongside linebacker Cato June in some nickel formations, which features four defensive linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties, during the second half, but didn’t have a problem with the substitution.
“It’s one of those things that you look at and say let’s see it before you knock it and see what it is like,” Brooks said. “Coming on and off the field has its merits and I was a lot fresher toward the end of the games and a lot more guys got some plays. So it seems to work so we will see where it goes from here.”
Brooks was exploited in the season-opening 20-6 loss to the Seattle Seahawks when running back Maurice Morris caught a 34-yard touchdown. Brooks was seen out of position on the touchdown reception, causing many critics to question whether the veteran linebacker was worthy of playing on every down.
Even at 34, Brooks is still able to make plays on defense and that was evident against the Saints as he recorded nine tackles and forced a fumble. The 13-year veteran’s leadership has never been called into question during his tenure with the Bucs and this is another situation that proves he is still the leader on the Bucs defense.
“It’s one of those things when God puts you in a situation; my strengths are going to far outweigh any of that,” Brooks said. “I just think me as a person that I’ve proven time and time again about putting this team first, whether it’s now or contract-wise my whole career. So it’s about winning and that’s just me as a person.”
Brooks has been the standard in the Bucs defense at the linebacker position and has made numerous big plays during his career. He is the NFL leader in career tackles among active players with 1,925 and has played in 192 consecutive games. Number 55 is also one of only four players in the history of the NFL to be named to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls, win AP Defensive Player of the Year and win a Super Bowl championship. That lists includes linebackers Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor and defensive end Reggie White.
The Florida State alum, however, has never had to face the questions of losing a step or sitting out plays in a game. Brooks faced questions about losing a step after the 20-6 loss to the Seahawks in the season opener and had to face questions on Monday about June taking over his position in some nickel situations.
“Going into the game we said we were going to get some plays in where some of you guys come out and get more of the rotation going,” Brooks said. “The weather, it was hot out there and a lot of guys came in and out and we seemed to be the fresher team at the end of the ballgame. So maybe this will work, we will see.”
Brooks did not talk to the media after Sunday's game, which led to some speculation that he was unhappy with Tampa Bay's decision to have he and June share some playing time in nickel situations. However, Brooks told the media on Monday that he had to leave Raymond James Stadium immediately after the game to take his daughter to the airport.
Head coach Jon Gruden doesn’t see why it’s a big issue if Brooks is replaced in certain situations by June, who was signed as a free agent during the offseason.
“I talked to him about the possibility of Cato playing a little bit in the nickel and I’m not going to make this anymore than what it is,” Gruden said. “I said yesterday that we are going to have an outstanding nickel Will linebacker on the field. Derrick will be the starting nickel Will; when he gets a little tired we are going to let Cato play. Those two guys are going to collaborate on that position. They both deserve that and it will be frontline news I’m sure when Derrick has something to say. Hopefully he understands where our team is going and where we are going and I think he understands he’s a very important part of this team.”
Gruden has had to make decisions about replacing veteran players with younger, talented players before. Even though it’s not an easy decision to make, the team comes first and the most important thing for the Bucs right now is winning games.
“We’ve had to take [wide receiver] Keyshawn Johnson out of a game and put Keenan McCardell in the game, I’ve had to take [WR] Jerry Rice out of the game on an occasion and put Tim Brown in the game, I’ve had take [running back] Ricky Waters out of a game and put Charlie Gardner in,” Gruden said. “We are talking about winning football games and Derrick Brooks is a big reason of why we are going to win, a big reason. There are some times in a football game, especially when the heat index is 130 degrees, that we are going to make a substitution to keep him fresh and also put a guy in the game that’s very talented. Say what you want to say and make it as big a story as you want to make it, but to me this is about winning and taking advantage of two talented players that just happen to play the same position.”
June isn’t in a hurry to take Brooks' spot in the defense and just wants to make plays and help the Bucs win games. He has enjoyed sharing the same field with a surefire Hall of Fame player and is trying to gain as much knowledge as possible from his veteran teammate.
“He’s a great player, Hall of Fame player, and I’m doing nothing but learning,” June said. “I’m just sitting back learning and just trying to take in as much as I can for as long as I can.”
Brooks has now become the teacher for many of the younger players on the defense, but still can let his play on the field speak for itself. There’s still some juice left in Brooks’ legs and his game – just ask New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush.
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