Brooks' release marks end of an era

The release of five high-priced veterans wasn't just a signal that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to accelerate their youth movement. It's also proof that this era in Buccaneers history is over. And no player embodied that era like LB Derrick Brooks.

I know that Derrick Brooks had every intention of fulfilling his contract through the 2009 season. That's just the type of guy he is.

I'm sure he also knew that when he renegotiated his deal after the 2005 season – a classy move that allowed the Bucs to keep some players they would have had to cut – that it would make it easier for the Bucs to cut him one day.

That day happened on Wednesday.

"I have had the fortune of being here for all 14 seasons of Derrick's extraordinary career, and have seen firsthand the impact he has had on every aspect of this organization," Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik said. "He was a true professional in every sense of the word. He will forever represent the standard by which all future Buccaneers are measured."

Brooks, along with four other players – all veterans and all Jon Gruden favorites – are now free agents. Brooks may or may not sign with another team, though he certainly has enough in the tank to play at least one more year.

But to what end? It's not like he has anything left to prove. Consider:

Selected with the No. 28 pick in the 1995 NFL Draft, Brooks earned a team-record 11 Pro Bowl selections (1997-2006, 2008), including 10 straight, during his 14 seasons in Tampa Bay. His 11 career Pro Bowl selections are second most by a linebacker in NFL history, trailing only Junior Seau's 12 selections. Brooks is one of only four players in NFL history to have been named to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls, won AP Defensive Player of the Year and won a Super Bowl, joining LB Mike Singletary, LB Lawrence Taylor and DE Reggie White on that exclusive list. Brooks captured his AP Defensive Player of the Year award in 2002, the same season in which he led the Buccaneers to their first world championship in Super Bowl XXXVII. That season, he also became the only linebacker in NFL history to have three interception returns for touchdowns in a single season.

His charitable contributions, his immense popularity and his iconic connection to the Buccaneers could take up considerably more space. There should be no debate on his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when his time comes in 2014. The Tampa Tribune's Ira Kaufman – or whomever Tampa Bay's representative will be on the PFHOF committee at that time – should simply stand up and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, Derrick Brooks." And then he should just sit down. No further explanation should be necessary.

In the larger scope, Brooks, along with another first-round selection in 1995, DE Warren Sapp, started the Bucs on their course from NFL laughingstock to Super Bowl champion.

No franchise played as poorly in the years leading up to Brooks' arrival than Tampa Bay. And even in those Florida Orange uniforms, Brooks' talent was unmistakable. When the Bucs made their change to red and pewter, Brooks took on an imposing presence and came to define the talent it takes to excel in the "Tampa 2" defense.

But all good things must come to an end, and that usually happens slowly. First former head coach Tony Dungy, who helmed the construction of this era, was fired. Then GM Rich McKay left. Slowly, so did the players that meant so much to that Super Bowl championship.

Sapp and S John Lynch left a few years ago. Then QB Brad Johnson. Then DE Simeon Rice. Then FB Mike Alstott. To a man, none of them wanted to leave, but either salary or injury forced their departure.

And now, in the last two months, it's been a mass exodus. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were fired. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin left to join his son at the University of Tennessee.

And now, Brooks. Certainly RB Warrick Dunn has his place in the Tampa community. WR Joey Galloway's three seasons of excellence will be remembered fondly. WR Ike Hilliard and LB Cato June brought singular qualities to the Bucs.

But it's Brooks who received most of the attention on Wednesday and rightly so. No player meant more, no player did more and no player was more associated with the Bucs of this era.

And now that era is no more.

It's fitting that it ended with Brooks' release, as painful as it is for his thousands of fans.

Because that's how it started.

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