Bucs Stopper Derrick Brooks is the quiet leader of a vaunted defense that shut down the 49ers and is the key to Tampa Bay's championship hopes

January 20, 2003

A horde of eager camera crews quickly surrounded Derrick Brooks,
but he just kept jogging until he was off the field. Brooks, the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' All-Pro outside linebacker, had maintained
a stoic expression in the waning minutes of his team's 31--6 NFC
divisional playoff victory over the San Francisco 49ers on
Sunday, and now, seconds after the clock had run out, he wasn't
about to start doing interviews. There was much more work to be
done.

So after tossing his black gloves into a group of crazed fans
behind the east end zone of Raymond James Stadium, Brooks
raced into the tunnel and headed for the locker room. He was
already thinking about this Sunday's NFC Championship Game
matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles, who eliminated Tampa Bay
from the playoffs the last two seasons. "Trust me," Brooks said
later. "As good as this season has been, it won't mean much
unless we win a championship."

This is how far the Bucs have come: They don't rejoice in an NFC
South title or a franchise-record 12 wins in coach Jon Gruden's
first season or a berth in the conference title game. They expect
more of themselves, and Brooks, who sees his job as keeping his
teammates focused, won't let that be forgotten. For despite the
constant chatter provided by loquacious defensive tackle Warren
Sapp and combustible wideout Keyshawn Johnson, Brooks is Tampa
Bay's quiet catalyst. "We have some big mouths on this team, and
it always appears like they're the leaders," says cornerback
Ronde Barber. "But Derrick was a unanimous choice for team
captain. That's how much we respect him."

And here's what media around the country think of him: Last week
Brooks, a six-time Pro Bowler, was named the NFL Defensive Player
of the Year, collecting 36 of 48 votes. Then, against the 49ers,
Brooks showed why he was a runaway winner. In addition to seven
tackles he had an interception, a fumble recovery and a
half-sack. By the fourth quarter he was pacing the sideline,
watching backups finish off a frustrated Niners offense that
produced only 228 yards and committed five turnovers.

Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said that his team "ran into a
wall that we just couldn't knock down." At the foundation was
Brooks, who led Tampa Bay with 170 tackles this season,
intercepted a career-high five passes and scored four touchdowns
on returns. Yet for all the accolades, he hasn't reveled in his
belated recognition as the game's top defender. "I'm doing the
same things this year that I've always done," says Brooks, who
has led the Bucs in tackles six times in his eight-year career.
"The main difference now is, I've turned some of those plays into
touchdowns."

Brooks is more concerned with the legacy of the Tampa Bay
defense. The Bucs had the NFL's top-ranked defense this season
and led the league in fewest points allowed (196) and most
interceptions (31). Brooks wants his unit to be linked with the
famous defenses of the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Baltimore
Ravens, but he knows that won't happen unless Tampa Bay wins a
Super Bowl. With the offense showing more firepower than it has
in years, the Bucs are better equipped than ever to make a title
run.

Philadelphia's strategy in a 20-10 win on Oct. 20 was to wear
down the Bucs with a steady rushing attack, and on Sunday, Brooks
will be tested again. Tampa Bay's 4-3 scheme is designed to keep
offensive linemen from getting direct shots at Brooks, freeing
him to flow to the ball. He'll be asked to stifle receivers on
underneath routes, chase running backs sideline to sideline and
run down quarterback Donovan McNabb in the open field. "The best
part of his game is his awareness," says Reggie McKenzie, the
Green Bay Packers' director of pro personnel. "Their defense is
all about filling the right gap, and he sees things as they're
happening. He has that innate ability to always be in the right
spot."

Brooks is an equally valuable player off the field. He teaches
younger linebackers how to study videotape and lectures teammates
on managing their money. When tackle Kenyatta Walker stormed out
of the locker room after being listed as inactive for the season
opener against the New Orleans Saints, it was Brooks who calmed
him down. "I tell Derrick he's like a counselor around here,"
says defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. "He's always talking to
people about their problems. But I've also cautioned him to be
mindful of his own responsibilities. Sometimes he has to realize
he can't do everything."

Brooks can't help himself. "I'm not a control freak, but I do
like being hands-on with everything I do," he says. "Otherwise I
think things won't be as successful as I'd like." Brooks never
wants this team to return to the miserable straits it was in when
he arrived as a first-round draft pick in 1995, back when
apathetic veterans filled the roster and Tampa Bay was in the
midst of 14 consecutive losing seasons.

Those days are gone--the Bucs have missed the playoffs only once
since 1997 --but aside from reaching the 1999 NFC Championship
Game, there haven't been many postseason highlights. In fact
their last three playoff losses have come by a combined score of
63-18. Such numbers led to the firing last January of coach Tony
Dungy, a move that angered Brooks. However, when the two men
spoke in April, Dungy told Brooks to move on and focus on leading
the Bucs to a championship.

The determined look in Brooks's eyes as he left Raymond James
Stadium suggests that he's gotten the message. "It's going to be
a heavyweight fight next week," he said. "All I can say is, we
plan on showing up for it."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES ON THE PROWL Against the 49ers, Brooks had his usual stellar day: a fumble, an interception and a half-sack. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES ATTACK MODE With Brad Johnson at the helm, Tampa Bay at last hasan offense that can put points on the board.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)