The Bucs' 2000 playoff run was short, but Donnie Abraham managed to post his third career postseason interception, a team record
His coach has left for New York. His running mate could depart as a free agent. There's no guarantee that the man who has his back will return, either.
Yet, this February, everything is finally in the right place for Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Donnie Abraham.
Abraham was voted into his first Pro Bowl this season, an honor that some felt came a season or two late. Not particularly adept at self-promotion, Abraham apparently needed a few years for his obvious talents to sink in around the National Football League. After he intercepted seven passes for the second straight season and continued to shut down some of the game's top receivers, the message was finally received in 2000.
So – even with former Defensive Backs Coach Herman Edwards gone to coach the New York Jets and half of the Bucs' starting secondary due to become free agents – February is starting off right for Abraham.
"I definitely feel like I belong here," he said. "I felt like I had the season that earned me the trip here, and that's what it's all about. It's not about your name or any of the other stuff. It's what you do on the field that year, and I think I had the performance on the field to be here."
'Here' is Hawaii, the annual site of the NFL's AFC-NFC Pro Bowl, a collection of the game's greatest players. The game will take place on Sunday, February 3, and the participants have spent a week in this tropical paradise preparing with daily morning practices. Heading off the practice field on Friday, Abraham described the week as a tremendous experience.
"It's great over here," said Abraham, who also recorded 63 tackles, a forced fumble, 27 passes defensed and the team's only postseason interception (against Philadelphia on December 31). "Just to have an opportunity to play with all of these guys is awesome. It was definitely worth the wait."
Abraham built his Pro Bowl reputation over the years with strong efforts against such standout receivers as Cris Carter, Herman Moore, Marcus Robinson, Antonio Freeman and others. He'll put it on the line Sunday against an intimidating AFC receiver field of Marvin Harrison, Eric Moulds, Jimmy Smith and Rod Smith. Abraham's not taking any particular matchup as a specific challenge, however.
"I just look forward to playing with all the guys on the field," he said. "I'm just fortunate to be here on the same field with all these guys. These are all all-stars and we've all put in our dues. We've all performed the way we were supposed to perform to get here."
Of course, that is probably the best Pro Bowl approach for any defensive player, who sometimes become afterthoughts in a showcase of offensive talent. Led by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaches last year, the NFC squad blasted the AFC 51-31 in a not-too-surprising outcome. Primarily for the safety of the players involved, many common defensive tactics are not allowed in the Pro Bowl.
"This all-star game is basically for the offense," said Abraham, without any trace of jealousy. "They really don't let the defense do too many things. We've got just one or two things we can do, and that's it. It's for the fans, who want to see the offenses score. We're just going to do what we can do and have fun. We've got one zone and one man (defense) and we'll just go from there."
Abraham – who lists winning Sunday's game a 'close second' to the experience of being voted in – brought his entire family with him to Hawaii for a week of sightseeing. He also has eight other Pro Bowl Buccaneers to help him get adjusted.
"Hawaii's very interesting, Abraham reported. "You'd have to stay longer than a week to see everything here, but we're having a great time. We're doing stuff with the family and meeting a lot of people."
Perhaps Abraham can finish up the Hawaii tour next year, and the year after. Now that he has broken through to Pro Bowl recognition, it would not be a stretch to imagine him becoming a common invite. He certainly plans to keep his game at a high level.
"I can get better every year," he said. "I have a lot of areas I can improve on, and I think I can keep improving throughout my career. If I ever get to the point where I think I can't improve anymore, then I'm definitely in trouble."
Lest we forget during these idyllic days in Hawaii, what about those other 'minor distractions', the loss of Edwards and the uncertain status of cornerback Ronde Barber and free safety Damien Robinson? Abraham's not overly concerned.
"I think Coach Dungy will do a good job of getting somebody in here who fits the system and has an understanding of what he likes to do," said Abraham of the coaching vacancy. "Of course, when you lose a coach like Herm, it's going to hurt a little bit, but there are a lot of great coaches out there and I'm sure Coach Dungy will get someone good in there."
He also hopes to have Barber back on the opposite side of the defense next year. Barber, who had a career year in 2000 with 97 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions, 20 passes defensed and two defensive touchdowns, teamed with Abraham to give the Bucs one of the league's top cornerback tandems.
"You never can tell with this league, but I hope he's back," said Abraham. "I'd love to play with him some more. I just hope everything works out for him."