The New England Patriots are said to be hard-working, versatile, intelligent, self-effacing, single-minded in pursuit of victory, and, cost-efficient.
Mike Vrabel is all these things. Mike Vrabel is the quintessential New England Patriot.
He is not a star. Offensive coordinators do not spend time obsessing about Mike Vrabel. It is very unlikely any opposing coach has ever spiced up a meeting by saying, "Goldangit! We've got to account for that Vrabel guy!"
In case Mike Vrabel didn't know who he was supposed to be, the national media is always around to remind him. One such account following the AFC Championship game against Indianapolis saw it this way: "There were occasions when the unheralded Vrabel, a defender of modest skills, who has been put into positions by [Bill] Belichick and [Romeo] Crennel to be effective," etc., etc., etc.
Among the "modest" skills possessed by this 28-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch, 261-pound linebacker are the ability to line up in a three-point stance and act as a surrogate defensive lineman, the ability to play the run from his linebacker spot, and the ability to play the pass from his linebacker spot. His flexibility is one of the keys to the Patriots' defensive success.
But Vrabel's ultimate value to the Patriots may be his sheer intelligence. According to an impeccable Patriots source, an in-house analysis of his play in 2001 revealed Vrabel to have made no, as in zero, mental mistakes during the entire season.
The Mike Vrabel story may tell you all you need to know about how the Patriots have gotten where they are. At the conclusion of the 2000 season, they made signing him one of their goals, even though he had played four years in Pittsburgh and had never started a game.
"Bill [Belichick] said, `We've been watching you enough. We think you'll be able to help us,' " Vrabel recalls. "Now I had been a decent linebacker for the Steelers, but I had never been a starter. And I guess I came in at the right price."
In the eyes of both Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, Vrabel was the right everything. He was part of a free agent signee class that included linebacker and special teams whiz Larry Izzo and defensive end Anthony Pleasant, who are still with the team, and guard Joe Panos and fullback Marc Edwards, who aren't. Said Pioli at the time, "Philosophically, the team we're trying to build is a big, strong, fast, tough, smart, competitive team with reliable people . . . We're going after players that fit our system and our overall philosophy. Some people term that `second tier' or the `next level.' We don't see them as that type of player. They're the right player for the way we want to construct our team."
Belichick himself said, simply, that Vrabel was the kind of player who "gets it."
Vrabel was a 1997 Steelers' third-round pick out of Ohio State, where he had established Buckeye career records for sacks (36) and tackles for losses (66). He joined a very solid Pittsburgh team that had gone 53-27 in the previous five years, and that was a year removed from a visit to the Super Bowl. Among the team's acknowledged strengths was at outside linebacker, where coach Bill Cowher had the likes of Jason Gildon and Greg Lloyd at his disposal.
But Vrabel did get some playing time, and he was on the field at a critical juncture of a playoff game between the Steelers and Patriots at the end of his rookie season. With the Steelers protecting a 7-6 lead, Vrabel sacked Drew Bledsoe, shaking him loose from the football with 1:50 left. Gildon recovered, and the Steelers ran out the clock. In keeping with the whole Dangerfieldian nature of Vrabel's career, the official NFL Postseason Media Guide informs its readers that this vital sack was executed by "Mark" Vrabel.
That might bother some people, but it would only amuse Vrabel, who does not play football in order to see his name in headlines or lights. It seems he has come to the right place.
"There is no better feeling than being genuinely happy over seeing one of your teammates achieve success," maintains Vrabel. "That's the way it is around here. We really want each other to do well. A great example was Jarvis Green last Sunday. I couldn't be happier for anyone because we all know how hard he's worked. Last Sunday his time had come and he had the three sacks. We were all happy for him. I'm not sure it's that way in other places."
Leaving Pittsburgh wasn't all that hard, considering the intensity of the Belichick schmooze job. But Vrabel never could have imagined his current life, with one Super Bowl ring in the vault already and another on order, and with the working conditions and general atmosphere he encounters every day. "They are so detail-oriented here," he explains. "They take care of everything. I don't care whether we're talking about the equipment people or the training staff or the administrative staff, we do not lack for any resources. They take care of all the little things, and we are not distracted."
Most of all, he finds himself surrounded by like-minded individuals. You know, "big, strong, tough, fast, smart, reliable people." It's a conceivable tombstone epitaph for Vrabel and half the locker room.
"Guys really are hungry here," he says. "Guys want to make plays. Guys are unselfish."
No one fits the profile of the Ideal Patriot more than Mike Vrabel.
"It's nice to be more than just a reserve linebacker in Pittsburgh," he says.
That's as close to preening as Mike Vrabel is ever going to get.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.