Maybe no Patriots Football Weekly cover words were ever more accurate than the Oct. 29, 2003, edition that read – “Ready, willing and Vrabel.”
The photo behind the words showed linebacker Mike Vrabel making one of his many plays in a 9-3 victory over the Browns that displayed just how dominant that soon-to-be Super Bowl-winning defense was.
In the midst of his third season in New England after arriving as a free agent from the Steelers, Vrabel had a career-high three sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defensed in the victory over the Browns with another would-be strip sack overturned by replay.
It was just one of the endless days during Vrabel’s eight seasons in New England – three of which ended in Super Bowl victories – that saw the versatile edge defender factor in a major way in Patriots victories.
And his contributions didn’t just come on defense or even special teams.
Vrabel served as a part-time, red zone tight end as well, to the tune of 12 career touchdowns on 12 career catches, including a diving score against the Panthers on the way to his second of three rings in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
During his eight seasons in New England, Vrabel started 110 of 125 regular-season games played -- including a move to inside linebacker due to the team’s immense need -- tallying more than 600 tackles, 48 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and 11 interceptions. In that time he also started all 17 playoff games he played for the Patriots, notching 84 tackles, eight sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Vrabel’s most productive season statistically came in New England’s 16-0 2007 campaign in which he earned first team All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition thanks to a career-best 12.5 sacks to go along with 77 tackles and four forced fumbles.
Ironically, some of Bill Belichick’s greatest praise for his playmaker and team captain came on the day he traded Vrabel along with backup quarterback Matt Cassel to the Chiefs on Feb. 27, 2009.
“When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker,” said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. “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, playmaking, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level. Behind the scenes, Mike's wit and personality is one of the things we have all enjoyed about coming to work every day. The toughest aspect of my job is the day I stop coaching people like Mike, who did everything in his power to contribute to team success. 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."
Belichick is right. Now the head coach of the Titans – a team that upset the Patriots last season in Tennessee – Vrabel should be the next inductee into the Patriots Hall of Fame.
There may never be a another comparable New England player to Vrabel given his significant contributions in all three phases to winning games and championships, combined with his leadership, media savvy and meeting room quick wit that even poked fun at his head coach at times.
Clearly one of the most productive, most versatile players and winners in the history of the New England franchise, the former All-Pro linebacker is “Ready, willing and Vrabel” to be the next man to have to his Patriots career honored in the team’s Hall of Fame.