Mike Vrabel epitomized what it meant to be a Patriot during the Belichick-Brady era. You can put him up there with Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi and Kevin Faulk as players who embody the essence of the Patriot Way. He was a tough, smart, versatile football player.
Vrabel announced his retirement today after 14 NFL seasons, which included eight with the Patriots and the last two with the Kansas City Chiefs. He's taking a job at his alma mater, Ohio State, as linebackers coach, naturally.
An argument can be made that outside of drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, the most crucial personnel move Bill Belichick made to build his football fiefdom in Foxborough was signing Vrabel as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001. The other prototypical Patriots and championship cornerstone talents were already in place from previous regimes -- Faulk, Brown, Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Ty Law.
Vrabel was a player procured by Belichick and seemingly tailor-made for Belichick at a position, outside linebacker, that is not easy to fill, as the Patriots have learned since Vrabel's departure following the 2008 season.
"When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker," Belichick said when Vrabel was traded to Kansas City in February of 2009. "But where Mike took it from there exceeded our highest hopes. Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level.
"Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike. In the same way people recognize guys like Troy Brown, we appreciate and thank Mike Vrabel. He is one of the very special Patriots champions."
No statistic will ever tell you just how valuable Vrabel was to the Patriots from 2001 to 2008 when he was a part of three Super Bowl winners and four AFC championship teams. He was a cerebral, unselfish, clutch player who helped execute Belichick's game plans on the field and could joke with the coach like few other players.
The quintessential Vrabel play is Law's interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI. Vrabel didn't get credit for the play, but he made it happen. Vrabel pressured St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner into a rushed throw and Law took it 47 yards for the first touchdown of a game that ushered in the Patriots' decade of NFL eminence.
The record will show that Vrabel only made one Pro Bowl and one All-Pro team, both in 2007. That was the season Belichick turned him loose as a thank you for playing inside linebacker in both 2005, when Monty Beisel went bust, and in 2006, when Junior Seau broke his forearm in the 11th game. All Vrabel did was accumulate 12.5 sacks, the most by a Patriots player in 20 years (Andre Tippett had 12.5 in 1987) and the most ever by a Patriot defender under Belichick.
Vrabel was victimized by playing with bigger names -- Seymour, Law, Bruschi, McGinest, Rodney Harrison -- and his own versatility. Those facts along with a tendency for some, ahem, mischievous maneuvers in piles that didn't endear him to opponents contributed to him not collecting more accolades.
But there was no Patriots defender more reliable or versatile. He was able to rush the passer, set the edge against the run and drop into coverage. He could toggle between outside linebacker or inside linebacker in Belichick's esoteric 3-4 defense, and, yes, occasionally moonlight at tight end, where every reception he had in his career (12) went for a touchdown, including two Super Bowl TD grabs.
The circumstances surrounding his departure from the Patriots following the 2008 season -- he was essentially a throw-in in the deal that sent Matt Cassel to Kansas City for a second-round pick that became Patrick Chung -- were mysterious and somewhat rancorous.
At the time of the deal, Vrabel, who is a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee and has been involved in the ongoing NFL labor negotiations, was the Patriots' union player representative and had made critical comments about the Patriot Place shopping center during the 2008 season.
But that was Vrabel, blunt, bearded and barrel-chested. He spoke his mind and stuck to his convictions. He somehow managed to be both a company man for Belichick and his own man on a team where personality was stripped and suppressed at every turn.
You always knew where you stood with Vrabel. There was no sugar-coating the situation. When he was traded to Kansas City, I sent him an email asking if he had been traded. He responded with a one-word email: "Yes."
He could be brusque, shooing you away from his locker with a sardonic putdown uttered with a chunk of chewing tobacco the size of Wrentham in his mouth or brushing past you with a wry smile. Or he might engage you in a 15-minute conversation full of smiles, jokes and insightful football explanations.
Vrabel's two talents are football and sarcasm. He was as quick with a retort as he was to recognize offensive tendencies. But he was never truculent or mean-spirited. He was fair, honest and funny.
Such was the respect Belichick had for Vrabel's football intellect that the first season that the NFL allowed coach-to-player electronic defensive communication, the Patriots coach chose Vrabel to be the one with the headset in his helmet.
That, like the voice in Vrabel's helmet, spoke volumes.
"Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached," Belichick said in a statement released by Ohio State. "He has a tremendous feel for people, players, coaches and what his team needs regardless of the situation. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player.
"I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners."
It takes one to make one.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.