Warren Sapp was destroying opposing offensive lines from his tackle position, and end Simeon Rice was racking up sacks left and right. Safety John Lynch struck fear in the hearts of any receiver brave enough to go over the middle, and cornerback Ronde Barber was just as good in run support as he was at shutting down the passing game. As great as all those players were on a team that won Super Bowl XXXVII, no question about it, linebacker Derrick Brooks was the heart and soul of that defense.
Now in his 12th year out of Florida State, Brooks is still the figurehead in Tampa Bay, but the talented cast of characters that used to surround him is all but gone.
Barber is still around and leads the team with 78 solo tackles and three interceptions, but Rice had only two sacks in eight games and will spend the rest of the season on injured reserve. With Sapp now in Oakland and Lynch out in Denver, Brooks is missing most of the pieces that helped him assemble one of the more impressive stretches of defensive dominance in league history. To his credit, he continues to perform like a perenniel Pro-Bowler.
Brooks is all too aware of Tampa Bay's disappointing 3-10 record, but he maintains that it's not due to a lack of effort.
"Well, obviously we're disappointed in our record," Brooks said on Wednesday via conference call at Halas Hall. "But with that being said, we've done some positive things to build on in terms of our character and team chemistry. Despite our losses, if you look at the effort as a football team we have put on teams, we play to finish. We're playing hard. Obviously we're not playing as smart as we should at times, and we're not playing as consistent as we want to."
The Buccaneers have been out of playoff contention for quite some time, yet Brooks is still doing everything in his power to be the responsible leader he has always been.
"Me personally," he said, "I just lead by example. Realizing that everything I do and put on tape, I want people to respect. I'm out there playing the same way whether we're 3-10 or 10-3."
The Bears, on the other hand, have the best record in the NFC at 11-2. If the Redskins can manage to defeat the Saints this coming Sunday, Chicago would clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win over the Bucs. It appears that Tampa Bay has little left to play for, but don't tell that to Brooks.
Quarterback Rex Grossman has received a lot of credit for bouncing back and playing well on Monday Night Football, but Brooks feels that the Chicago coaching staff also deserves much of the credit.
"I'm more impressed with what [offensive coordinator Ron Turner] is doing and how these guys play as a team," he said. "Really, offensively, when they get rolling, the running game sets up the big plays down the field. And likewise, when they come out throwing the ball downfield, that loosens up lanes for the running game. So Coach Turner does a good job of calling plays and keeping defenses off balance."
Brooks has been to nine straight Pro Bowls and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2002. Sapp, his teammate for nine seasons, was the recipient back in 1999. Chicago's Brian Urlacher won that coveted award a year ago and could be in the running yet again this season.
Brooks was asked what the key is to winning that honor, being consistent all year long or simply making the biggest plays in the biggest games.
"It's a combination of that," he answered, "and obviously how well your team is doing. For most players that win these awards, you look at the teams that are normally winning or in the playoffs or in the Super Bowl. So your team has as much to do with that as you as an individual. And then when the big lights are on, you've got to perform."
The Bears have drawn many comparisons to those defensively-decimating Tampa Bay teams before the Bucs finally won a title in 2002, but Brooks believes it's still way too early for that kind of talk.
"I think those comparisons are to come about when the season is over. There's still plenty of season left, obviously the postseason for the Bears. But I think when the season is over, then you sit around and compare them, but there's still too much football left to start drawing comparisons right now. I think when people start to do that, they're setting themselves up for failure."
Is that another way of saying that the Bears can't be considered a great team until they win the Super Bowl?
"Yeah, of course."
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