There was a time, not too long ago, when you couldn't rattle off half a dozen names of Patriots linebackers without mentioning Tedy Bruschi.
Today, however, it's the likes of Adalius Thomas, Jerod Mayo, Pierre Woods, Derrick Burgess, Gary Guytonand even Shawn Crable who come to mind first.
Perhaps it's a case of "out-of-sight-out-of-mind." For nearly all of training camp this summer, Bruschi was a no-show. Old age has long since begun to take its toll on the 14-year veteran. He admitted that it took much longer than it should have for him to get back on the field after suffering what he described as "some aches and pains" following the first day of camp late last month.
Upon his return to the practice field, Bruschi found that he had quite a bit of catching up to do.
"The challenge I faced … was coming back after a long layoff and sort of feeling like it was my first day again," he observed. "You're feeling a little behind because you've haven't been out here for so long. That's the No. 1 challenge in terms of getting back to playing football the way I want to play it."
In order to do that the way he once did, Bruschi cannot afford to miss any more time than he already has. Bruschi, like head coach Bill Belichick, is a proponent of the axiom that you play how you practice. If that is to be taken literally, Bruschi's playing time could be significantly reduced this season, based on the amount of practice time he's missed this summer.
"Also," he added, "with myself and all the other linebackers, it's about establishing yourself as a member of this team and a player that has a role on this team."
There was also a time, not too long ago, when Bruschi's role on the Patriots was unquestioned. He was the heart and soul of the blue-collar, workmanlike members of the New England defense. An underdog who overachieved.
Today, however, even he admits that his role, if yet undefined, is in a state of flux. The younger generation of Patriots linebackers, epitomized by Mayo, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, are naturally assuming the responsibilities of leadership that once belonged to Bruschi.
"I think the first and most obvious choice is evident when you look at Jerod," said Bruschi. "He's in the middle of the defense. He's sort of establishing himself as a leader on the defense because it is his second year now and he's made that progression into really being a good player. He's one that is absolutely ready for that. Defensively, I think a lot of guys are ready here. I'm really fired up about a lot of things that Jerod is going to do."
"I think even if you talk to Jerod he'll want more on his shoulders," Bruschi continued. "He's that type of player. He wants to be good. He wants to be really good. His work ethic and any aspect of his game you can really see that he desires to be a good player. That comes with being a second-year player, a third-year player. He's going to have a lot more on his shoulders than last year. It's different. You look at him as a rookie last year, but now you look at him as a starter and a leader on this team and a leader on this defense. That's something that I'm sure he'll do fine with.''
Bruschi appears resigned to the fact that he may be forced into more of a supporting role this season.
"Roles are being defined," he noted. "I know we have a lot of good inside linebackers. Every year, I have to come in and establish a role for myself on this team. This year is no different."
There was a time, not too long ago, when Bruschi was a terror on the football field. Watching Bruschi on the field now, it's evident that he lacks some of the burst he once possessed as a younger player. His signature move was a full-body leap over an offensive line or an on-coming blocker to get to the quarterback or ball-carrier. You don't see much of that sort of thing from Number 54 these days.
But that doesn't mean Bruschi lacks the desire to keep playing. On the contrary, he sounds as if the vitality of his youthful teammates has been infectious. He spoke of their raw athletic ability, their explosiveness, their speed, their passion and their desire to contribute. And that, it seems, is helping motivate Bruschi to give it all he has for a 14th season.
"I was with them all in the offseason program and mini-camps … in the meeting rooms, and the locker room, and the practice field and things like that, there's a lot of enthusiasm," he pointed out. "The ability is evident in a lot of the guys, but it's up to them to define their roles with the team. That's something training camp is for, and we'll see within the next three weeks."