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No move too radical for versatile Vrabel

Email|Print| Text size + By Frank Dell'Apa
Globe Staff / February 2, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Retirement was sounding good to Mike Vrabel before the season. Vrabel, 32, had played 10 NFL seasons and won three Super Bowl titles. He could play inside and outside linebacker, and he could line up with the offense in goal-line situations and "catch the ball when I'm wide open."

There was not much missing from his career.

But the Patriots had plans for Vrabel. They had signed unrestricted free agent Adalius Thomas for an inside linebacker slot, giving Vrabel a chance to play outside on a regular basis.

Vrabel's former role had gained him quite a bit of glory, enough to satisfy his career ambitions. But had Vrabel retired, he would have missed out on not only another Super Bowl appearance (against the New York Giants tomorrow), but also a chance to perform for an undefeated team.

Vrabel set a personal record for sacks (12½) this season, the most by a Patriot since Andre Tippett's 12½ in 1987, and he made his first Pro Bowl.

"I think it was key to the production," Vrabel said of moving to the outside. "At inside linebacker you're more inclined to be around the ball on running plays or dropping into coverage. As an inside linebacker there are plays you're supposed to make and there are plays as an outside linebacker that you're supposed to make."

Vrabel started making plays almost immediately, getting 2 1/2 sacks in the season-opening 38-14 win over the New York Jets Sept. 9. But Vrabel still fell far short of Tippett's team-record total of 18½ sacks (1984), and the 16½ Tippett had in 1985.

"You can't really talk about outside linebackers without saying [former Giant] Lawrence Taylor and Andre Tippett," Vrabel said this week. "To me, [Tippett] is a guy that rushed, covered, played against the run, and put up a lot of great numbers when linebackers really weren't doing those types of things in the '80s.

"We get the media guide and I look at those numbers and I'm like, I had a pretty good season, I'm still six sacks away, or whatever, from Tippett. So, it's like he really was a great player. He gave the fans of New England something to look forward to when they had a bad team. They knew they'd be watching a great player, a superstar player.

"And he's helped us out. I remember when I got here he would work with us and work with the line, and the guys that rushed. I'm glad he got some attention and I hope people realize how good of a player he was."

Tippett set standards for the outside linebacker position by using anticipation, athleticism, and karate techniques.

Vrabel has set standards for versatility (10 career touchdown receptions, 51 sacks); he has a chance to move into the Patriots' top 50 all-time scorers and is now No. 6 on the team's all-time sack list.

Asked about his receiving abilities, Vrabel said: "Early on I played a lot of sports, basketball, football, and track, and just played tight end in high school."

When Vrabel arrived at Ohio State he was told the team had enough tight ends and needed defensive ends.

"So, I never really played tight end after that," Vrabel said. "I always tried to work out with the quarterbacks, catch the ball, run routes, and then that just evolved into the goal-line package."

That training has paid off for the Patriots, who have used Vrabel in goal-line situations since 2002. He caught his first touchdown pass that season in a Week 4 game at San Diego.

"We lost the game [21-14]," Vrabel said. "Who cares when you catch a touchdown pass when you've lost?"

The Patriots scrapped the strategy until 2004, and in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vrabel scored the Patriots' final touchdown in a 32-29 win over Carolina. Since then, he's frequently been used in the offense.

This Super Bowl takes on another dimension because of the Patriots' 18-game winning streak. But Vrabel is impressed with the Giants' 3-0 playoff record and 10-game road winning streak.

"The undefeated regular season is great, but to me, the Giants are just as undefeated as we are," he said. "They beat great teams, all on the road, and everyone else lost - the Bucs, the Cowboys, the Packers - they're all gone. For the Giants to be here, they have to be undefeated.

"We know they're a physical team, we know we have to play better than we did against them in December or we'll lose because they've gotten better. That's been the strength of their team and they've rallied behind that each week. They're getting better, have come together as a team, and there's a lot of confidence over there."

And Vrabel should be impressed by his own accomplishments.

"I don't know how many guys come into the NFL thinking they are going to play 11 years," Vrabel said. "To win three Super Bowls, go to a Pro Bowl, I would say that it has probably exceeded any expectation at the time I was a third-round draft pick of the Steelers in 1997."

Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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