In 2001, LB Shelton Quarles set a Buc record with a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against Green Bay
Shelton Quarles built a remarkable career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of very humble roots. An undrafted free agent who plied his trade in Canada for two years, he reported to Tampa Bay's training camp as a virtual unknown in the summer of 1997. A decade later, he stands as one of the finest players in franchise history.
That memorable playing career with the Buccaneers has now come to an end. Quarles may yet explore options with another NFL team or return to the Tampa Bay franchise in another capacity, but Buccaneers General Manager Bruce Allen announced on Tuesday that Quarles would be released/failed physical.
"Shelton has been a great contributor to the Buccaneers – ten years of not only solid football but solid leadership," said Allen. "Ever since [Pro Personnel Director] Mark Dominik signed him from the BC Lions, he has provided a spark to this team. What the future holds, I think will be determined in the next month or two."
In one respect, Quarles' future as a Buccaneer is clear. He will be remembered as one of the best linebackers in team annals. The third-leading tackler in Buccaneer history, he racked up 985 tackles, including five straight seasons in triple digits since his 2002 move to middle linebacker. He also finished his Buccaneer playing days with 13 sacks, four interceptions, 28 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries and 77 special teams stops. During an offseason web site diversion in 2004 in which Buccaneers fans voted on the top players in team history at each position, Quarles was selected as a starter at both inside linebacker (along with Hardy Nickerson) and special teamer. He was the only player to appear on the team twice.
Quarles finished his Buccaneer tenure strong, playing through various ailments in 2006 to post 136 tackles, 2.5 sacks and three passes defensed. Though he discussed the matter of his future extensively with Allen after the 2006 season and was consulted on the timing of his release, Quarles has not flagged in his passion to play in the NFL.
"You know him," said Allen. "He's a gentleman, but his desire to be around football is inspiring."
That desire helped Quarles overcome the slow start to his NFL career. Dominik, then a pro personnel scout, found the former Vanderbilt standout in the Canadian Football League in 1996, two years after he had failed to win a roster spot as an undrafted rookie with the Miami Dolphins. Quarles signed with the Buccaneers in 1997, made the team out of training camp and quickly emerged as the team's best special teams player. He had 67 kick-coverage stops in his first three seasons in Tampa, including a team-record 31 in 1999.
That was also Quarles' first year as a starter on the Buccaneers' vaunted defense. He nearly won the starting job at strongside linebacker going into his second campaign but was briefly slowed by preseason injuries. He did take over that role in 1999 and held it for the next three seasons. In 2001, he set another franchise record with a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against Green Bay.
In the spring of 2002, new Head Coach Jon Gruden announced his surprise decision to move Quarles to middle linebacker. The plan worked stunningly well, with the Buccaneers' defense rising to number one in the NFL rankings, Quarles earning his first Pro Bowl berth and Tampa Bay emerging from the season as Super Bowl champions. Quarles finished that season with 159 tackles, two interceptions and one sack. In the postseason that year, he led all Buccaneers defenders with 21 tackles.
He would play four more seasons at middle linebacker, peaking at 196 tackles in 2005, the second-highest single-season total in team history. His consistent play was a key component in the amazing streak put together by the Buccaneers' defense, which ranked among the top 10 in the NFL rankings for nine consecutive years, including two number-one overall finishes. That streak of top-10 rankings was the second-longest in NFL history.
Following the lead of such community-minded veteran linebackers as Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks, Quarles would also soon emerge as a go-to Buccaneer off the field. One of the most active Buccaneers ever in the community, he eventually established the Shelton Quarles IMPACT Foundation in 2004. In 2006, he received a prestigious "JB Award" in honor of his commitment to building better communities and stronger families.
One of the most dedicated, hard-nosed and productive players in the three-plus decades of Tampa Bay football, Quarles saw his outstanding Buccaneer career come to a close on Tuesday. His release did nothing to change who he fundamentally is.
"He's a football player," said Allen. "I think if we were sitting here in 2017 he would still want to play football. His passion for the game is not only rare but it's remarkable in some ways, because he beat a lot of odds in order to play."