LB Derrick Brooks, who recorded his 11th career interception on Sunday, has numbers similar to those of San Diego's Junior Seau
Last Sunday in Tennessee, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brook played in the 100th game of his skyrocketing career, though a foot sprain apparently limited him to a much lesser impact than he is used to making.
That same foot sprain now has Brooks on the Bucs' injury report as questionable for next Sunday's Pittsburgh game, whereas he spent the previous week under the heading of probable. Perhaps the Bucs' coaching staff is taking a more cautious approach this week, though the early guess is still that Brooks will be able to play.
"It's about like it was last week," said Head Coach Tony Dungy, noting that only LB Jeff Gooch is expected to miss the game. "(Derrick)'s probably not going to practice much early in the week, but we hope to have him in practice by Friday. We'll have to see on Friday (if he's fit to play)."
It is nothing more than coincidence that Brooks' status is in doubt the week his team is scheduled to play the Steelers, one of the NFL's longest-running factories of great linebackers. The former Florida State standout would fit well into a Steeler lineage that includes such once and current stars as Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Hardy Nickerson, Chad Brown and Kendrell Bell.
But where does Brooks, who entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 1995 fit among his peers? As we pass his 100th career game, it's as good a time as any to ask. Though there may be no definitive answer, the following comparison is instructive.
Below, you'll find Brooks' NFL statistics through six-plus seasons and alongside those of a player uniformly believed to be one of the greatest ever at the same position, certainly one of the greatest of this era.
It is only in the last two categories that Brooks' numbers fall appreciably short of his competitor, and it's reasonable to argue that fumble recoveries involve a higher rate of chance than the other categories. This mystery linebacker, who has been his team's MVP for the past four seasons running, has indeed been a much more prolific pass rusher than Brooks, which can't be discounted. However, it's worth noting that Brooks has specifically not been included in the Bucs' pass-rushing plans most of his career.
"We don't rush Derrick an awful lot," said Dungy. "We have a lot of confidence in our four down linemen so we don't blitz him as much. He's been a very valuable guy in pass coverage for us, but I think Derrick would be a pretty good rusher if he was in a system where he came a lot."
Elsewhere, Brooks has numbers that compare favorably with or even seem superior to his more experienced counterpart. Tackles are an unofficial statistic compiled in different ways by different teams, so must be considered with a note of caution, but Brooks' 9.83 tackles per game in his six-plus seasons is a better pace than the other linebacker's 7.50 over 11-plus campaigns.
Each has exactly 11 forced fumbles, though Brooks has played 76 fewer games. In addition, Brooks has just three fewer interceptions despite playing five less season and has nearly matched his competitor's passes defensed total. Brooks shares with his counterpart outstanding speed and quickness for a linebacker, making him ideal in coverage.
"He's pretty good at that," said Dungy. "We ask him to cover a great deal of ground in zone coverages and cover different guys. He covers wide receivers at times in our blitz package. As a linebacker, he's pretty special at that."
Perhaps you've already guessed that the numbers alongside Brooks' in the chart above belong to San Diego's Junior Seau, who has been to the last 10 Pro Bowls. Seau broke into the league in 1990 and has been so uniformly dominant since that he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-Decade Team for the 1990s, an enormous honor. Of the six linebackers named to that squad – Greene, Derrick Thomas, Cornelius Bennett, Nickerson and Kirkland – Seau is probably the surest bet for the Hall of Fame, with apologies to Thomas.
Brooks, of course, did not begin play until 1995 and started his Pro Bowl run in 1997, limiting his chances for that same team. He may have the same problem on the front end for the team of the first decade of the 21st century.
"His problem will be that he really just started playing in '96 and he may not be at the top of the heap for this entire decade," said Dungy. "He may not hit it just right for an All-Decade type team, but he'll have a ten-year stretch that will be as good as anybody in the league."
The purpose of the above chart, of course, is not to lobby for Brooks' inclusion on such a team, or even to decide if he ranks above or below Seau. The Charger star has a longer career, plumper statistics and more Pro Bowl nods on his career, to this point. It is simply a comparison designed to show the rare territory into which Brooks seems to be headed. If Seau is indeed considered the greatest linebacker of the current era, is Brooks headed for his own spot in the Hall of Fame?
"He's been to four Pro Bowls in a row," said Dungy. "There's no reason why he can't do that several more times. When it's all said and done, if you go to seven or eight Pro Bowls, that's saying a lot."
Food for thought as Brooks hits career game number 100. At the moment, however, the more salient issue is whether game number 101 will occur this weekend.
"We'd like to have him but it's just like if you don't have anyone else," said Dungy. "You've got to do your job and win the game. We hope to have him and we think we will, but if we don't, we're still playing to win."