TAMPA — The trend that resulted in the passing game becoming the NFL’s dominant mode of attack was just beginning when the Buccaneers drafted a linebacker out of Florida State to help them defend it.
Though many teams thought he was too small for the job, the Bucs thought 6-foot, 235-pound Derrick Brooks had the unique skill set necessary to thwart the siege coming their way.
Seldom have they made a more accurate assessment.
Though it took a couple of years, or until Tony Dungy came aboard as coach and altered the defense, Brooks eventually proved himself to be the ultimate foil for what offenses around the league were trying to do — the prototypical outside linebacker.
“It was like the perfect storm of a player with just the right type of ability being put into just the right scheme, and just as offenses were being transformed in the mid and late ’90s,’’ Dungy said.
“You had all these Don Coryell and Bill Walsh-type thinkers trying to spread people out and create mismatches, and it was just perfect that we had a guy who could do what was required to stop them.’’
Those requirements were, at the time, unique for a linebacker. Most teams still wanted linebackers to be big burly guys, the kind who could shed a pair of run blockers and make a tackle near the line of scrimmage.
Either that, or teams wanted them to be pass rushers, though most of those were part-time players who substituted in for the bigger linebacker on obvious passing downs.
That’s what Brooks would have been in most any other defensive scheme. But in the Cover 2 scheme Dungy brought to Tampa in 1997, he asked Brooks to do something completely different.
First, he wanted Brooks to stay on the field for all three downs, no matter the down and distance and no matter the personnel grouping the opponent used.
Second, he asked him to take responsibility for a specific zone that stretched approximately 12 yards deep from the line of scrimmage and from the ball to the yardage numbers on the the field to his right.
Everything that came into that zone, whether it was a tight end, a wide receiver or a running back, with the ball in his hands or looking to grab a short dump off pass, was Brooks’ responsibility.
And offenses knew it.
Almost immediately, the area of the field left solely to Brooks to cover became their target, assuming no one player could cover such a swath, especially if it’s flooded with more than one target.
Time and again, though, Brooks fooled them. He came out from his hiding place behind defensive tackle Warren Sapp and tackled either the ball carrier who ran into that zone or the pass catcher who was trying to escape from it.
Even on the occasions when he was beaten or fooled by the darting eyes of a quarterback, Brooks often rebounded quickly enough to make a play that foiled the offense’s game plan.
“You’d see that all the time on third-and-6 or something like that, where (the quarterback) would look Derrick toward the tight end in there and then throw the ball to Tiki Barber or Marshall Faulk instead,’’ Dungy said.
“And Derrick would go to where the quarterback was looking. But then, somehow, he would come back and make the tackle and, ‘Bam,’ 5 yards instead of 6. And it’s fourth-and-1 instead of first-and-10.’’
That pattern of looking Brooks toward one target then firing at another became so prevalent, the Bucs began to call that offensive play the Buc Pass. It’s a term still used by coaches on both sides of the ball all across the league.
Meanwhile, what Brooks did to stop the play became a standard unto its own. Much like Sapp at the under tackle spot, Brooks became the player who defined the position of weakside linebacker in the Tampa 2.
“He invented that position,” former Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said of Brooks. “When he played there, the way he played there, you were watching history being made.”
Brooks made history all right. Confounded by his uncanny ability to consistently break up their schemes, rivals voted Brooks to 11 Pro Bowl rosters, the most for any player in Bucs history. His streak of 10 straight Pro Bowls from 1996 to 2007 is tied with Mike Singletary for the second longest for a linebacker in NFL history, trailing only Junior Seau’s 12 straight.
Brooks also was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 2000s.
With plaudits such as that, it was only natural Brooks was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on his first ballot and that he will become the newest member of the Bucs’ Ring of Honor in September.
“You can look through the history of the NFL and there aren’t even many Hall of Famers who can say they created a position,’’ Barry said. “But that’s what Derrick Brooks did, and there was no one else like him.
“Other teams played their version of the Tampa 2, and they copied the coverages and the blitzes and all that and they knew all the rules, but only one team had Derrick Brooks.”
Try to be the best teammate I could be to get the best out of my teammates, yet challenge myself even more. That’s how I brought it all together. We had a stage that was big enough for everybody to stand on and, at the end of the day, just the way that I carried myself kind of put me in that position that everybody knew they could depend on me.
♦ Challenge accepted
Derrick Brooks had been challenged before, but never quite like this. After Tony Dungy came aboard in 1996 as the Bucs’ sixth head coach, Dungy told Brooks that the team’s success hinged on his ability to play at the same level as former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking great Jack Ham.
Talk about pressure.
Dungy asked the same of Brooks’ roommate, Warren Sapp, telling Sapp to replicate the play of former Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene.
Dungy saw Ham and Greene as prototypes playing the two most important positions in the Cover 2 scheme he brought to Tampa, and saw similar abilities in Brooks and Sapp. So, the challenges seemed natural for him to issue.
Brooks and Sapp saw them as mountain peaks that had to be reached, and they developed a strategy to conquer them.
“What we did was look at how many Pro Bowls (Ham and Greene) had and we said, ‘All right, that’s our number,’ ” Brooks said. “And then we went out and chased it. We took it as a great deal of respect, obviously, that we were being compared to Joe Greene and Jack Ham, but what it did was establish a goal for us.”
Brooks met that goal in 2003 when he made the eighth of 10 straight Pro Bowl appearances, the second-longest streak for a linebacker in NFL history.
♦ Stopping Barry Sanders
The Bucs’ 31-15 win over the Bears at home on Dec. 21, 1997, meant a trip to the playoffs, the first for Tampa Bay in 15 years and first under coach Tony Dungy.
For Dungy, though, it was a bittersweet moment, because the victory meant the Bucs’ first playoff game would be against the Detroit Lions and running back Barry Sanders, who had shredded Tampa Bay the last time they faced him: 24 carries for 215 yards and two touchdowns, plus a 7-yard touchdown catch, in a 27-9 Lions victory.
The thought of facing Sanders again weighed heavily on Dungy’s mind as the Bucs celebrated their return to the postseason, and Derrick Brooks could sense it.
“Just as he’s sliding out of the locker room that day,’’ Dungy said, “Derrick peaks in (my office) and says, ‘Don’t worry about any repeats, Coach. We’re not going to have what we had last time. We got this.’ ”
Oh, they had it all right. A week later, the Bucs beat the Lions 20-10 at old Tampa Stadium, where Sanders was limited to 65 rushing yards on 15 carries, 43 receiving yards on five receptions and no touchdowns.
If it weren’t for Brooks, it probably wouldn’t have been that way. Sanders was always just a head fake or juke away from breaking a big gainer, but he couldn’t sell any of those moves to Brooks that day.
“As a team we couldn’t have played any better,” Dungy said. “But I remember three or four open-field tackles where if Sanders gets by, it’s going to be bad. But Derrick got him down every time.”