Football 101: No. 54, Derrick Brooks
A quick update here: Based on some of your feedback, I am going to make the Football 101 much more like the Baseball 100 from here on, with deep-dive essays that, I hope, get to the heart of the stories about greatest players in pro football history. There will be no more “player roundups” (though some essays might include two players who I feel are connected in a meaningful way).
In that spirit, the Football 101 will appear here every Wednesday, so it will be a year-long countdown to No. 1 — with some bonuses and surprises along the way — and it will conclude during Super Bowl week, 2023. Also, once we get to the top 50, these essays will be for paid subscribers only. Thanks, as always for your support!
There’s a trap that’s easy to fall into when ranking football players — and that is to overrate players because they are part of an incredible unit. This isn’t really true in baseball, because it’s so much easier to separate individual players in that sport. The 1927 Yankees are one of the most famous lineups in baseball history, for example, but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks Joe Dugan or Pat Collins or Mark Koenig were legendary hitters.
But in football, it’s much more difficult to isolate individual players in a legendary unit. The most famous example of this involves the 1970s Steel Curtain defense in Pittsburgh. There’s no question that was one of the greatest defenses in NFL history … five of the 11 starters are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount and Donnie Shell. Of those players, Greene, Lambert, Ham and Blount are often talked about as the very best ever at their positions.
On top of that, there has been an ongoing effort to induct two more Steelers from that defense — L.C. Greenwood and Andy Russell.
We know those Steelers won four Super Bowls and dominated the game. But did that defense really have seven Hall of Famers and four of the greatest defensive players in NFL history?
Now, consider the late 1960s Kansas City Chiefs defense. That team played in two Super Bowls and won one of them. And that defensive unit has SIX Hall of Famers — Bobby Bell, Buck Buchanan, Willie Lanier, Emmitt Thomas, Curley Culp and Johnny Robinson. And, look, the late 1960s Chiefs defense was really good; but six Hall of Famers?
Or take a look at the Oakland Raiders offensive line of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those Raiders were obviously very good; they reached Super Bowl II and were a perennial playoff contender. But three of the five players on that line — Jim Otto, Gene Upshaw and Art Shell — are in the Hall of Fame, and all three are considered among the best in NFL history. Could that really be so? Wouldn’t a line with three of the greatest offensive linemen ever have dominated more than those Raiders did?
It’s a puzzle. I’m certainly not downplaying the talents of any of those players; I believe they were all-time greats. I’m just saying that football is a sport of reflective glory. One player’s greatness bounces off another. What is Steve Young without Jerry Rice? What is Merlin Olsen without Deacon Jones? What is John Elway without Terrell Davis? And vice versa?
This is the character of football. The best teams blend together so absolutely that it’s difficult to clearly see the individual players.
All of which leads to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense from 1997 to 2002 or so. That is absolutely one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, but for some reason the unit has not received the tributes and bouquets that the 1970s Steelers got, or the late 1960s Chiefs or the 1985 Bears or other great defenses. The reason is probably that they had to overcome a pretty terrible offense in mostly every season. They made the playoffs five times purely on defense. They won a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson as their quarterback and Michael Pittman as their leading rusher.
And they changed the way NFL teams play defense. Their brilliant coaches, Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, popularized the Tampa 2-defense, which relied on pure speed, gang tackling and linebackers who could cover. It’s still an NFL mainstay.
But for some reason, that defense has not been celebrated enough — heck, Ronde Barber, who was an absolute force in that secondary, is not even in the Hall of Fame yet. Maybe it’s because that defense wasn’t flashy enough. Maybe it’s because they didn’t draw up all the fancy blitzes that get the imagination going. It’s hard to say.
But I think I can say this: Because the Tampa Bay defense is so underrated, I think that Derrick Brooks might just be the most underrated linebacker in NFL history.
Derrick Brooks was an anomaly. He was a brilliant outside linebacker who almost never blitzed — he never had more than three sacks in a season. In 2002, his greatest season, he had only ONE sack.
Brooks’ game instead revolved around anticipation — he always seemed three steps ahead of the offensive gameplan. That was true going all the way back — at Washington High School in Pensacola, Fla., he almost singlehandedly carried the team to the state title and was so dominant that he would be named to the Florida High School Association all-century team.
Then at Florida State, he was a two-time consensus All-America. His was an absurdity. In one stretch during his junior year, he led a goal-line stand against Kansas (shutout), returned an interception for a touchdown against Duke, returned a fumble for a touchdown against Clemson (another shutout — he also blocked a punt), returned an interception for a touchdown against North Carolina, and led yet another shutout against Georgia Tech. There seemed to be two No. 10s on the field at all times.
He should have been a Heisman candidate in both his junior and senior years; he was certainly as impactful as his teammate Charlie Ward or Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman winners those seasons.
Even so, there were some questions about Brooks’ NFL future because he was undersized at 6-foot, 235 or so pounds. The Buccaneers took him late in the first round of the 1995 draft. Earlier in that draft, they took Warren Sapp; those two would change everything in Tampa Bay.
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Things needed to change. The Bucs had 13 consecutive losing seasons under five different coaches before Brooks and Sapp came along. After their rookie season, Tampa Bay hired Tony Dungy to be head coach. It doesn’t seem like 1995 is so long ago, but Dungy was only the fourth African-American head coach in the NFL since Fritz Pollard in the 1920s — Art Shell, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes and Dungy.
Dungy had been interviewed and denied so many times before Tampa Bay … even at the time, it felt absolutely ridiculous. It just didn’t make sense how many times teams passed on hiring him as head coach. It felt something just HAD to be wrong with him.
Of course, the truth was that there was something wrong with the NFL. Under Dungy, the Bucs completely transformed as an organization: Brooks and Sapp were the biggest reasons why. While Sapp went after the quarterback and tackles behind the line of scrimmage — talking all the way — Brooks just made tackles all over the field. He led the league in solo tackles three times in his career. He flew around, sideline to sideline, blanketing receivers, making picture-perfect tackles.
There are so many things you can say about his extraordinary ability as a tackler, but maybe the best way to say it is that he seemed impervious to feints. A ball-carrier would juke and cut and stop and start, and Brooks would just plow right through them. It didn’t matter who it was.*
*In 2004, the Bucs were playing Michael Vick’s Falcons, and Vick had been all-but-unstoppable as a passer and a runner. He has an argument as the most elusive runner in NFL history. “No points!” Brooks told his teammates all game long, and sure enough the Bucs shut out the Falcons 27-0 (“That’s a Babe Ruth-type shot there,” Simeon Rice said after the game) and Brooks finished the game with 11 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a tipped pass that led to an interception.
The Bucs made the playoffs four times under Dungy, but it wasn’t good enough for team owner Malcolm Glazer, who fired Dungy after the 2001 season. Let’s go down that rabbit hole for a minute because it was quite the dumpster fire (and, ironically, it led to the crescendo of Brooks’ career).
First off: It took a whole lot of gall for the Bucs to fire Dungy. He had turned around the worst franchise in professional sports. He had built one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. And he was unanimously understood to be one of the classiest people in sports.
My friend Dave Fleming wrote this at the time: “After watching this fiasco unfold over the last week, I have to ask: Is there no room left in this game for class, integrity and character?”
On the surface, it should be said, Glazer’s reasoning was not entirely without merit. The Bucs did seem to have plateaued as a playoff team that was not quite good enough to get to the Super Bowl. And there were some real questions about Dungy’s willingness to make the offensive changes the team needed to take the next step.
But here’s the thing, looking back: There was one reason, and only one reason, that the Bucs fired Tony Dungy. Glazer and Co. had come to an agreement with the man himself, Bill Parcells.
Bill Parcells! The Big Tuna! He had been out of the NFL since 1999, and in his absence his legend had only grown. The man won two Super Bowls with the Giants. He took the lowly Patriots and Jets to the playoffs. He was larger than life! You know that meme with the guy looking back? Right, I’ve always wanted to do one of those:
Glazer was quietly ecstatic. He made some nominal comments about how hard it was to let go of Dungy, how much he admired Dungy, but he had stars in his eyes. He was so fired up about Bill Parcells coaching the Bucs that he did not even consider the hottest young offensive coach going, Florida’s Steve Spurrier. Spurrier had played for the Bucs and was probably the most popular football figure in Tampa-St. Pete. But Glazer had his man.
‘BAY WATCH,” the New York Daily News blared on the back page. “Tampa waters ideal for Tuna after Bucs fire Dungy.”
Yes, the Glazers were all in on Bill Parcells. But here’s the thing: The Bucs had tried to hire Parcells once before, back in 1992. It was a different owner then, Hugh Culverhouse, but they still had a handshake agreement. And Parcells, at the very last minute, decided to pull back his hand and sit out one more year before taking the job in New England.
“I feel as though we’ve been jilted at the altar,” Culverhouse said sadly. “I’m still here at the altar. For what it’s worth, there’s no honeymoon.”
Now, the Glazers were convinced that Parcells was definitely in. The Bucs would have that honeymoon after all. And that was worth dumping the most successful coach in team history.
And then … well, do I even need to say it?
“Parcells Jilts Bucs,” was the gigantic headline across the sports page of the Orlando Sentinel.
What a surprise.
“I just want to stay retired,” Parcells said. “I hope that convinces everybody that I’m not coming back. Because I’m not. This is it. I’m staying retired.”
One year later, Parcells took the Dallas Cowboys head coaching job.
Parcells’ rejection left the Bucs in a lurch. They had fired a hugely successful and graceful coach (who immediately was hired to coach the Indianapolis Colts) and they had not even tried to hire Spurrier (who was immediately hired to coach Washington) and they were left with … well, what?
There was Marty Schottenheimer, a great defensive coach whose teams always won but then fell short in the playoffs.
Wait, that sounded familiar.
There was Marvin Lewis, a great defensive coach in Baltimore.
Wait, that also sounded familiar.
They talked about LSU’s talented coach, a guy named Nick Saban, but there was certainly no appetite in Florida for hiring a college coach NOT named Steve Spurrier.
So, what to do? They offered the job to San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci. He turned it down flat. Who wanted to work for an organization that would treat Tony Dungy like that?
Well, there was one guy: A coach working for an even more difficult owner. Jon Gruden was coaching the Oakland Raiders then. He was having success — the Raiders had made the playoffs two years in a row — but nobody was happy. Gruden wanted to be paid more. Raiders owner Al Davis wanted a coach who threw the ball downfield Raiders style rather than this dink-and-dunk nonsense that Gruden employed. Then you could throw in that Gruden’s parents lived in Tampa (his father had been a Bucs assistant coach), it seemed a match.
But, you know, Al Davis. He may have been unhappy with Gruden, but that didn’t mean he was going to give the guy up. And it turned into a month-long clown show, with Gruden threatening to leave Oakland the next season, Davis asking for, like, the Bucs next 500 first-round picks, the Bucs finally shutting down negotiations and deciding to hire Marvin Lewis, the Glazers’ sons nixing the Marvin Lewis deal because they thought his style was too much like Dungy’s.
Eventually, Norv Turner’s name was thrown in because of course it was.
“Man,” Derrick Brooks said, “This is a circus and I don’t want to be in the act. … You have to laugh because you don’t want to cry.”
In the end, as usual, Al Davis was probably the shrewdest of the bunch: He KNEW that sooner or later the Bucs would have no choice but to give up more than they wanted because Gruden was really the only coach who worked. So, in the end, Davis got two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million for a coach who was leaving Oakland anyway … and who, history would suggest, wasn’t the most admirable or successful guy around.
After 2002, Gruden’s NFL record is 67-82 and 0-2 in the playoffs and he’s been fired twice; I was convinced even before his 2021 meltdown that he was one of the more overrated sports figures of the 21st century.
But, credit where credit is due: Gruden was absolutely perfect for the 2002 Bucs. And he was absolutely the perfect coach for Derrick Brooks.
Yes, Brooks was already a star by then. But Gruden saw that he could be even more. One of the first things he did was dare the Bucs defense to score more points and just take games over no matter what the offense did.
“If you’re so great,” he told them, “let’s see you score some touchdowns.”
Brooks took this to heart. In 2002 he took his game to a different level from any linebacker in NFL history. Brooks looked for every opportunity to not only make big plays but to score touchdowns. He picked off five passes, which is amazing enough, but even more, his 218 return yards are a record for linebackers. He scored three touchdowns on interception returns, which is a record for linebackers. He also scooped up a fumble and returned that for a touchdown.
And then, in the Super Bowl against Gruden’s former Oakland team, he picked off a pass late in the game and returned that for his FIFTH touchdown of the season.
I’m not sure that one defensive player has ever meant more to a team winning a championship than Brooks meant to the Bucs in 2002. He was, of course, the defensive player of the year, he probably should have been the overall league MVP, but that has only twice gone to a defensive player.
Brooks would continue on for another six years as a terrific linebacker — he made his 11th Pro Bowl in his last year, 2008 — and then the Bucs unceremoniously cut him. He was pretty shocked when it happened, but Tampa was in transition. They had fired Gruden and, in a bizarre move, hired Raheem Morris, who had been a lower-level assistant for the Bucs and then spent one year as defensive coordinator at Kansas State. Morris felt like the team needed new blood and also felt like this was the end of the road for Brooks.
“I think he retires,” Morris said. “But honestly, I don’t know.”
It wasn’t easy for Brooks to retire; he was stunned and hurt by the move. He broke with the team and refused to announce his retirement for a long while.
But, in the end, he did not play again. A year later, he reconnected with the Bucs, did announce his retirement, and he has stayed in the Tampa area, where he spends much of his time leading the Brooks Bunch charity that he founded.