It only took a quick conversation between new Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris, general manager Mark Dominik and Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, a 14-year veteran and the most decorated player in team history, to change the face of the Buccaneers franchise.
With his release, this is no longer Brooks’ defense.
It’s Barrett Ruud’s defense.
Although he has been preparing for the day when he would take over the defense when Brooks’ days in Tampa Bay were done, the news came as a shock to Ruud, who enters his fifth year in the NFL, when he found out that Wednesday was that day.
“It was a surprise,” Ruud told PewterReport.com. “This is the tough part about the NFL. You establish friendships with people, but business is the priority in this league. Tough decisions get made all the time in this league.”
Ruud said that his leadership style mimics Brooks’ in that both players choose to lead by example, but he knows that he will have to be a bit more vocal now that the defense will be looking to him to guide them.
“Leadership is a process. I think it took Derrick a full 14 years to become the leader he was last year,” Ruud said. “Derrick commands so much respect just by what he’s done on the field in his career. I don’t think I’m going to change too much. With Derrick being gone, maybe I have to be a little more vocal, but I’m not going to yell and scream. I’m going to do what I’ve always done and maybe encourage guys a little bit more. I’m going to keep doing what I’ve done to get me this far.”
Having played in 63 games with 35 starts, Ruud is now the elder statesman in the Bucs' young linebackers room in terms of playing time. Aside from Brooks, Tampa Bay's starting weakside linebacker, tthe team also released starting strongside linebacker Cato June along with wide receivers Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard and Warrick Dunn in a youth movement.
“I guess I’m the old guy now,” Ruud said with a laugh. “I’m 25 and I feel like I’m getting further away from 21 when I was in my prime! It will be a little different for sure. This past year, Derrick wasn’t necessarily a crutch for me, but more of just a comfort factor in knowing he was there and you could always talk to him about anything. It will be different now that he’s not there. He hadn’t missed a game in 221 starts. He was somebody that you could always count on. Now guys will be counting on me in that same capacity.”
The legendary Brooks, surely bound for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when his playing days are done, will always Mr. Buccaneer – the best player ever to play in Tampa Bay. Better than Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon and better than the great under tackle Warren Sapp.
But after Morris and Dominik broke the news to Brooks that the team was going to go in a different direction, the focus on defense now shifts to Ruud, who figures to be the next great linebacker in Tampa Bay history, following the lead of players like Brooks, Hardy Nickerson, Scot Brantley and Shelton Quarles. Ruud, a second-round draft pick in 2005, got his chance to start at middle linebacker in 2007 when the Bucs told the aging Quarles it was time to move on.
“That’s just the NFL. What happened to Brooks happened before (with Quarles),” Ruud said. “That’s how it happens. It’s going to happen to me some day. I hope I can make it about 14 years before a new guy jumps in and takes my spot. That’s how it goes. The good thing for me is that I got to spend four years with Derrick and the last two with Cato. I couldn’t have been luckier to do that.”
Ruud burst on the scene in ’07, narrowly beating out Brooks for the team tackle lead with a career-high 235 tackles. Last year, Ruud maintained his role as the team’s tackle leader with 178 stops. This time, the younger, faster and more durable Ruud beat out Brooks, who made the Pro Bowl, in the tackle department by a whopping 68 stops last year.
Not only will Ruud have to adjust to Jim Bates’ new Bucs defensive scheme, he will also have to adjust to being flanked by two new linebackers. The departure of Brooks and June, who had started at the strongside linebacker position since his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2007, opens the door for young players such as Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes, who were all drafted by the Bucs, in addition to free agent additions Matt McCoy and Rod Wilson.
“The younger guys have done a good job for us,” Ruud said. “Nobody really walks right in and starts very often in this league. It’s rare to do that – especially as a linebacker. As a linebacker, you have to learn the defense and how to play and how to make reads at a pro level. It takes some time. Obviously, you have to start somewhere and you have to start sometime. They are going to get a shot to earn starting jobs this spring. They’ll be fine. It will be fun to see them battle it out for starting positions.”
The Bucs will undoubtedly look to add another linebacker or two in free agency or the NFL Draft, but the team obviously felt comfortable with some of its young players it has been developing. While they expressed the same degree of shock that Ruud did when they received the news that Brooks and June were released, they are anxious for the chance to play alongside Ruud and follow his lead.
“As of right now, Barrett is not just the leader of the linebacker room, but he’s also the leader of the defense,” Black said. “He goes out there day in and day out and does his job and performs well. He’s learned a lot from Derrick and Cato and you could tell he was taking on more of a leadership role last year.”
Hayward agreed that Ruud, whose 413 career tackles trails Brooks’ team record by 1,785 stops, is ready to take over the defense.
“I know Barrett took on more of a leadership role last year,” Hayward said. “Even Derrick would respect him enough to look to Barrett to make the calls. When you are the middle linebacker, it’s your huddle. Barrett is a great player, who is definitely smart. Everybody respects him. This is Barrett’s defense now with Derrick gone. It’s time for Barrett to do his thing and continue to get better and take the defense with him.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org