Derrick Brooks understands why an observer would gaze out over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice field and see 1996 all over again. However, when he looks for himself, as he did during a visit to the Buccaneers' training camp on Monday, Brooks isn't sure the talent level is exactly comparable.
He thinks the 2012 Buccaneers might be better.
Derrick Brooks was a second-year NFL player in '96, a promising defender on an unproven team, playing for a first-year coach who was trying to change an entire culture. The Hall of Fame-level greatness Brooks would soon unlock as an individual, and the many wins just around the corner for the franchise as a whole, weren't yet obvious or expected.
The '96 Buccaneers lost their first five games under new Head Coach Tony Dungy but famously refused to panic and stuck to Dungy's plan. The won six of their last 10, then broke a 15-year franchise playoff drought the next fall and wound up in the postseason in five of the next six years. Though it was one year after Dungy's departure, under Head Coach Jon Gruden, Brooks and the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII at the end of the 2002 campaign, still the greatest accomplishment in franchise history.
Brooks put together a stunning 14-year career that is almost certain to land him a bust in Canton. He went to 11 Pro Bowls, was named a first-team AP All-Pro six times and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in that 2002 championship season. He is the team's all-time leader in tackles, with 2,148, and also racked up 25 interceptions, 13.5 sacks and six defensive touchdowns. He played in every single one of the Buccaneers' 224 games during his 14 seasons, starting 221 of them.
Brooks is usually considered option 1A or 1B, along with Hall-of-Famer Lee Roy Selmon, in discussions of the greatest player in Buccaneer franchise history. He also played with many of the franchise's other all-time greats, from Warren Sapp to John Lynch to Ronde Barber to Hardy Nickerson. He has seen a core group of talent come together and produce a lasting winner, and he saw another group capable of doing the same thing when he visited One Buccaneer Place on Monday.
The 2012 Buccaneers are another young and largely unproven team trying to come together under a first-year head coach, Greg Schiano, who is solid as a rock. The Buccaneers aren't coming off 15 straight postseason-free seasons as that '96 squad was, but they are trying to rebound from a disappointing 4-12 campaign that took some of the luster off a 10-6 surprise in 2010. They are at ground zero of the Schiano Era, as they were with Dungy in 1996, but Brooks says the talent is there to build another consistent winner.
"I'll tell you right now: These guys are better," said Brooks, who visited camp on Monday along with one of his former teammates from the '90s, linebacker Jeff Gooch. "These guys are better than we were in '96. Jeff Gooch and I have talked about that a lot. They've been together and had that success of a 10-6 season, where in '96 we hadn't. We were just a bunch of young guys and we really only had one proven winner, Hardy Nickerson, on the football team at that time. But this year, you've got a bunch of guys that have won some games. You've got Carl Nicks here – he's been there, he's seen it all. This offensive line is a lot better. You look at the defensive talent – they've got multiple number-one draft picks up front. In '96, outside of Eric Curry and Warren Sapp, we didn't."
Brooks watched a portion of Monday's practice while chatting with Shelton Quarles, who is now the team's coordinator of pro scouting. Quarles joined Brooks on the team's linebacking corps in 1997 and was soon starting on the strong side and then, later, in the middle for the Super Bowl team. Quarles made it to the Pro Bowl in 2002 but, like Brooks and Gooch, was still getting his feet wet in Dungy's early days. That '90s defense also featured Nickerson, the rare veteran import through free agency, and there were few linebacking units in the NFL who made more of an impact in those years.
The 2012 Bucs are trying to build another playmaking crew for the middle of their defense with the likes of rookie Lavonte David, a second-round pick, and 2011 third-round selection Mason Foster. Currently, David and Foster are taking the majority of the first-team snaps along with veteran Quincy Black, with David on the weak side and Foster in the middle. Brooks was impressed with the group on Monday.
"When you first look at them, you appreciate the athleticism," he said. "They do have a lot of the characteristics that we had when we were young players, Quincy Black and Adam Hayward being the veterans out of that group. I'm looking for big things out of them. I expect them to make more plays in this defensive scheme, and the quicker they can get it down and learn from it, get more comfortable playing it, the faster they can play and really let their instincts take over.
"I'm excited to see them play this year. I really want them to get through camp healthy. I think if the linebacker unit can stay healthy, there are some big things in store for them this year."
David, who has been compared to Brooks due to his size, speed and sideline-to-sideline range, knows what it means to be praised by the former Buc great, and thinks he and his teammates can come together the same way the linebackers did in the '90s.
"I remember a lot about Derrick Brooks," said David. Hopefully, he's a future Hall-of-Famer. He's a great guy from what I know. That's a great compliment coming from a guy like him who was a great linebacker himself, and then all the linebackers he played with that came through here. I know we have a great group of guys out here in the linebacker meeting room. We have bonded together and we help each other out when we need it. As a unit I think we pick each other up."
Now, Brooks may be modest, but he obviously knows how good the Buccaneers' defense was during his heyday. It's also obvious that the 2012 team has not yet had the chance to earn a similar label of greatness yet. Brooks sees talent – a potential for greatness – on Tampa Bay's practice field, but he knows there is one more ingredient that must be there for the current squad to match what the last great Buccaneer teams were able to accomplish.
"I'll be the first to tell you that this team, where they sit today, is probably a little better [than the '96 team]," Brooks reiterated. "Now, that being said, we had a little edge that I want these guys to get: We were hungry. We were thirsty. We did whatever it took to win. We said little and listened a lot. It didn't come together for us at first.
"Can this team be mentally tough to deal with bumps and bruises? That's what we've got to wait until the season to find out. We started out oh-fer. We had five consecutive losses [in 1996]. But we were mentally tough, and that didn't change with the head coach and that didn't change with us players. We started to click, and once we got it we went on a roll."
Fortunately for the newest Buccaneers, Brooks also sees one very good reason to believe it's going to click again, and it's the man on the field with the whistle around his neck.
"Can this team handle that type of adversity and deal with those types of obstacles?" asked Brooks. "Only time will tell. But I do know one person who won't change, and that's the head coach. He's going to be the same guy."