LB Derrick Brooks' nine-year Pro Bowl streak has coincided exactly with the Buc defense's run of top-10 finishes
The National Football League announced its AFC and NFC Pro Bowl squads on Wednesday, which made it one of the most important non-game days on the fall schedule. Players covet Pro Bowl berths, and rightly so, for the validation it brings to their efforts, for the recognition that they are at the top of their profession.
Believe this, however: No player in the NFL would trade a Super Bowl victory for a Pro Bowl berth.
Both are phenomenal achievements and both represent the pinnacle of success in the sport, the former as a team and the latter as an individual. But a Super Bowl championship is the more fulfilling end, for many reasons.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were reminded of one of those reasons on Wednesday, when the NFL announced its AFC and NFC rosters for the 2006 Pro Bowl, right in the middle of the team's preparations for a critical playoff-run game against the Atlanta Falcons. That reason: Win you win the Super Bowl, everyone on the team gets a ring.
See, Pro Bowl seasons and Super Bowl titles are the products of full-team efforts, but only with the latter is that properly recognized.
That's the flip side to individual awards in a sport as team-oriented as football. Pro Bowl running backs need help from their offensive line to rack up yards. Interception-hawking safeties need pressure from the defensive ends to force bad throws. Sometimes, the good work of one player outshines the equally strong performance of another, even though both were critical to the team's success. Invariably, it falls to those who get the personal honors to reflect the light back on their deserving teammates.
That was one of the main reactions shared by cornerback Ronde Barber, linebacker Derrick Brooks and punter Josh Bidwell when the three learned of their Pro Bowl selections on Wednesday. They were properly honored and definitely elated. Brooks, about to make, amazingly, his ninth straight Pro Bowl trip, spoke of being "humbled." Barber appreciated the lengths to which his reputation has been strengthened around the league. Bidwell, also awaiting the impending birth of his first child in the next few days, didn't try to contain his excitement at this most excellent week in his life.
But all of them felt an equal amount of distress for teammates who they believe should be going to Hawaii with them. There are, of course, only so many all-star spots available, and there are going to be players who appear to be Pro Bowl snubs in almost every NFL locker room. But teammates take such snubs a little more personally, because they've had an up-close view of the hard work put in and the outstanding play produced by many others.
"You appreciate it but you put a lid on it," said Brooks of the feelings accompanied with making the Pro Bowl. "This is probably one of the toughest years for me in terms of making it, because I can name five or six guys who I know should have made it, had deserving years to be in the Pro Bowl. Again, all I can do is just thankfully continue playing at the level they're playing at. This is probably the most alternates we've had, and all those guys had the type of year and deserve to play."
Often, players decline to get too specific about snubs, because to point out one player is to omit another. One could certainly look at the list of alternates mentioned by Brooks – Mike Alstott, Joey Galloway, Anthony McFarland, Simeon Rice and Cadillac Williams. Obviously, those five impressed a good number of voters, if not quite enough; Galloway specifically was the subject of several "notable snub" articles to hit the net after Wednesday's announcement.
But both Brooks and Barber had particular teammates in mind for whom they felt disappointment in Wednesday's Pro Bowl announcements.
"I think it's obviously mixed emotions, especially for me in this locker room," said Barber. "We have a lot of good players, and I'll be specific and say that B.K. [Brian Kelly], again, doesn't get the recognition for being a Pro Bowl-type player. He's not an alternate either. That bites at me a little, but that's the nature of this deal.
Kelly and Barber have been of the league's best starting cornerback tandems for years, and the presence of one has always made the other better. When Barber had his breakout, 10-interception season in 2001, he was immediately plucked for his first Pro Bowl. When Kelly similarly swiped a league-high eight interceptions the following year, for the eventual Super Bowl champions, he was not. Since, the Pro Bowl recognition has continued to elude Kelly, for no reason that makes any sense to his teammates.
Brooks, in turn, felt particularly bad for fellow linebacker Shelton Quarles. Quarles has made a Pro Bowl previously, in 2002, but he hasn't had too many stronger seasons than this one. Brooks knows that his teammate has been as important to the success of the defense in 2005 as anyone.
"Shelton has risen to the occasion every week for us," said Brooks. "To see him not be chosen, that's kind of hurtful in a way, to be honest with you. Hopefully, we can go out there and win a bigger championship that will erase this."
It seems obvious, in a larger sense, that the Bucs have several all-star candidates on defense, considering how well that unit has played this year. The Bucs trail only the Chicago Bears in the league's defensive rankings, and those Bears are sending five defenders to the Pro Bowl. However, Carolina and Jacksonville, ranked third and fourth respectively in those rankings, had only one defensive player chosen and Pittsburgh, ranked fifth, had two to match the Bucs.
Again, there are only so many all-star spots available and Barber and Brooks know that they are representing their whole squad when they head to Honolulu.
"Thinking back to a couple of years ago with the [Warren] Sapps and [John] Lynches, when they were here and they made Pro Bowls every year, they were representing this defense," said Barber, who has been in the role of deserving non-invitee before. "It goes back to Hardy [Nickerson]. There have been guys every year that I've been here that could, and did, go to the Pro Bowl and we have alternates that might go this year on this defense. We are representative of this team and how good this defense has been over the years."
Brooks is the quintessential representative of that defense – always deserving, always chosen, probably headed to the Hall of Fame when it's all said and done. The Bucs are about to finish their ninth straight season in the top 10 of the league's defensive ranking, an almost unbelievable streak of uninterrupted excellence, and Brooks has capped each of those seasons with a trip to the Pro Bowl. That said, he remembers every player that's been by his side over those nine years.
"Again, as I said, there are a lot of players who have contributed to our success as a defense," said Brooks. "It's believing in the system and going out there and really working hard to make the plays. At the same time, we know a lot of guys contribute to our success. Again, none of these Pro Bowls I've made could be possible without 10 other guys."
Bidwell, who is the first punter in franchise history to make the Pro Bowl, also knows that his success is a reflection of the special teams as a whole. His numbers are a little bit more individually-oriented – his league-leading gross average gauges merely how far he kicks the ball, not he resulting coverage – but he still would have no chance for success without 10 other men on the field.
"This is the best punt team I've ever been on," said Bidwell. "They've done a phenomenal job this year. They've protected me well. Dave Moore has improved to become what I call a 'pure' long-snapper. I used to say he was a recycled tight end last year. He's done a fantastic job, and obviously if I don't get a good snap and good protection I can't punt the ball. There were a few times I out-kicked the coverage this year and the guys went down and made great plays, so I appreciate every single one of the guys on the punt team. This is as much theirs as it is mine."
Such messages are well-communicated in the locker room after the Pro Bowl announcement every year. Players share their sincere congratulations to teammates who were selected, and those selected in turn give their humble thanks. It doesn't take long for the topic to be shelved and the focus to go back to the task at hand, particularly in the midst of a serious postseason chase.
After all, it's really the ring that everyone is after.
"I'm very proud of Derrick, obviously, and Ronde and Josh Bidwell," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They certainly deserve to go. I'm disappointed we didn't have others but I'm proud of our whole team, I really am. I like our team. We're looking for playoff players. Those are the players I'm looking for. I'm happy for the personal awards that they do get, but we're looking for guys who can help us get in the playoffs."