Though seemingly entrenched as a starter on the Bucs' defense, Quarles approaches each practice as if nothing is assured
On Thursday, as he provided a wrap up of the just-concluded month of voluntary workouts, it was suggested to Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy that very few of the team's starting positions were up for grabs this year.
Dungy stopped the reporter before he even finished his question. The coach had a different number in mind regarding the starting spots that will be open for competition in camp this August.
"We have 22 of them, and if you're counting special teams, about 36," said Dungy. "That's the way you try to approach it. Sure, you have your favorites going in, guys who are coming back that played at a high level last year, but I think to be a good team you have to start from scratch every year. We're going to play the best guys, whether it's Booger McFarland, who all of the sudden comes on (during last year's training camp) and is ready to play … we don't know that. We can't assume that. We try to approach it as if 36 spots are open."
Such words, while good as the philosophical backbone of a team, nevertheless are likely to roll off the backs of many veterans. It's not likely a Warren Sapp or a Jeff Christy expects anything less than to be starting come September.
Shelton Quarles, the Bucs' two-year starter at strongside linebacker, is more likely to take Dungy's words to heart. Despite performing at a high level in a low profile position in 1999 and 2000 – 126 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recoveries, an interception and seven passes defensed during those two campaigns – Quarles refuses to feel entrenched.
"I never want to feel like that, because you never know in this business," he said. "That's why I always report, come in and try to work hard. I do what I can do and let everything else play itself out."
Quarles learned the value of dogged pursuit of his goals during a long and winding journey to his now stable spot in the NFL. His first crack at the NFL came with the Miami Dolphins in 1994, but he was overconfident and unable to see the big picture. A year out of football, two seasons in the Canadian Football League and a civilian job at a printing press altered his attitude before his second NFL shot with the Buccaneers in 1997. His career has done nothing but climb steadily upwards since.
After two seasons as perhaps the Bucs' best special teams player (1997-98), Quarles moved into the starting strongside, or 'Sam,' linebacker spot in '99. However, he was considered so valuable to Joe Marciano's special teams squads that he continued to play extensively on kickoff and punt coverage. Even while starting on defense, Quarles led the team with 31 special teams tackles in 1999, a single-season Buccaneer record.
Finally, Quarles was relieved of this burden in 2000 so that he could concentrate fully on his defensive role. His statistics took a small but noticeable leap upward last year. Quarles would prefer a similar assignment in 2001.
"I hope so, because it's tough playing special teams and trying to be a starter on defense," he said. "A lot of times, you come out there and you're winded, but you don't want to let the team down, so you're out there giving everything. A lot of days, I come in and I'm just spent physically and mentally. I just want to lay down, but now that I have a daughter, that's harder to do."
Quarles will go back to busting up kick returners, of course, if called upon, and there's no guarantee he won't be needed. With Marciano trying to weave a new wave of very young players into his coverage and return units, he has called upon Quarles this offseason to be a steadying influence.
"It's a little tough right now because I'm still doing special teams, but hopefully some of the young guys will step up and my role on special teams will diminish a little bit," said Quarles. "To the some degree it is to aid the younger guys, because I still know how to play special teams. That's how I made my mark. That part of me will always be there, whether I'm a starter or not."
The way Quarles' Buccaneer career has taken a recognizable step forward each season, one wonders where it could go next. In a perfect world, he would go from playing the Sam position, which is so often tied up by the tight end and frequently away from the action, to 'Will' or weakside linebacker, which is more involved in pursuit and tackling. Quarles thinks he could fill that role. There is, of course, a man currently playing weakside linebacker for the Bucs named Derrick Brooks.
"I'd rather play Will or Mike (middle linebacker)," Quarles admitted, though with no hint of jealousy or regret. "I'm not really built to be a Mike, but Will linebacker is a good position. You get to make a lot of plays. When you play Sam, you're on the tight end, and tight ends don't get a lot of action if you're playing on them. A lot of times, they go away from you. You make a lot fewer plays playing Sam linebacker, and you come out in the nickel situations, but that's just the way it goes. I'm happy playing Sam and I hope I play Sam around here for a few more years."
Which means the statistical side of his game is not likely to take any further great leaps forward. And he certainly can't do much on special teams to top 67 tackles in a three-year span (1997-99). For now, he will concentrate on improving the very important numbers that most fans never see, those found on the coaching staff's grading sheets.
I just want to grade out high in my 'make-the-play' grades and my technique grades," said Quarles. "That's all I can do, just play my technique to the best of my ability and make the tackles when they present themselves.
"I graded out pretty well last year. I started out a little slow, because it's a little hard to figure out what the position demands of you, but I got better as the season went on. I graded out pretty high in both categories and I didn't miss a lot of tackles. I'd like to see those numbers go even higher this year."
He'll have to do it under a new coach. Former Linebackers Coach Lovie Smith has left to coordinate the St. Louis Rams' defense, and his spot was filled by Joe Barry, an exuberant young coach. Of course, Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin remains, and one imagines he has a good feel for Quarles' abilities.
"I think Monte knows, but you always want the coach you're playing for to feel comfortable when you're in there. What I'm going to do is go back and re-learn the stuff I already know. That way, when I think I might not be doing something right, it will click in my head where I need to be. You can run through it in your mind real quick and get set up."
Quarles, it seems, is satisfied without being complacent. As difficult as it was to realize his dream of starting in the NFL, he's not about to take it for granted. He remembers just four years ago, when he was an unknown free agent out of the CFL, and he sees other players in the same situation now, such as new Buccaneer DE Ron Warner. He and Warner often lift weights at the same time and rehash old CFL stories. Quarles also offers him the best advice he can give, having been there.
"I just tell him to try to make the best of it," he said. "You're in a good situation here. Just learn the defense and come in and work hard. You see him working hard every day in the weight room, getting better, and that's good. All you can do is put your best foot forward and let them see what you can do."
That's called preaching what you practice.