They haven’t replaced the benches on the Denver Broncos’ sideline with rocking chairs, at least not yet, but the team may have moved one step closer Monday with the addition of 14-year veteran linebacker Keith Brooking.
Before anyone suggests that coach John Fox is operating an old folk’s home, or a halfway house for NFL geriatrics, understand that the acquisition of Brooking on a one-year deal was part of the coach’s grand plan for constructing a roster that is hardly short on veteran leadership. And which includes players that, in a sport that’s still principally a young man’s game, accentuates a notion that there remains room for guys who know how to prepare and understand what it takes to win.
Most of the attention at this juncture of training camp, and rightly so, is afforded to the rosters that have gotten greener. The Broncos, by design, have grown a little bit grayer, like their coach’s hair, in Fox’s second season with the franchise. And that might not be all so bad, some veterans agree.
“You need a little bit of a mix,” acknowledged 13-year veteran Champ Bailey, who at 34 remains one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, and whose staying power has warded off for another season any inkling of moving him inside to safety. “Guys who can give a team (veteran) perspective. And I think we’ve got it.”
Think about the players that Fox, whose team claimed a division title last season despite an 8-8 record and actually won a playoff game, has added to the Broncos for the 2012 campaign. Sure, the signing of Peyton Manning was inarguably the highest profile of the maneuvers, and the one that means the most. But Fox has brought in at least a half-dozen other 30-something veterans, certainly none of them as essential as Manning, but all expected to assume fairly key roles either on the field or in the Denver locker room.
So when the telephone rang in Brooking’s suburban Atlanta home a few days ago, and a Broncos’ official invited him for a workout, the linebacker was ready to buy his own plane ticket for the audition. Brooking hadn’t yet entertained thoughts of retirement, but, at 36 and comfortable, wasn’t going to jump at any opportunity. It’s become a hackneyed phrase for players with the scrap heap beckoning to contend they will only strap on the pads again for “the right situation.” Most of the guys who say that, though, are desperate enough for one more NFL contract to lower their standards. Or to redefine or justify “the right situation.”
The Broncos presented “the right situation” for Brooking, who is coming off a season in which he started only three games in Dallas, his fewest starts since his 1998 rookie campaign in Atlanta.
Granted, Brooking isn’t in football shape yet, as he conceded on Tuesday while watching practice. He doesn’t run nearly as well as he did earlier in his career — heck, the Falcons dumped him four years ago after he surrendered a critical third-down completion in a playoff loss at Arizona, and noted privately his coverage liabilities — and probably doesn’t hit as hard.
But Brooking is plenty savvy and maintains his passion for the game. And he’s not adverse, at this point in his career and well into his football dotage, to subjugate individual ego for the collective good.
“There are coaches I respect here, men who have succeeded, and people who know it’s not just about guys running the fastest or jumping the longest,” Brooking said of the Denver collection. “For me, it was a great opportunity.”
Brooking joins a 30-sonething group of newcomers that, besides Manning, includes veterans such as wide receiver Brandon Stokley, cornerback Florence Drayton, safety Mike Adams and defensive tackle Justin Bannon. Not a lot of the older players are working on more than one-year contracts, and many of them typify the one-year rental philosophy cited by The Sports Xchange in a column last week. But they figure to provide the Broncos the benefit of many years of experience.
Third-year wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, for instance, recently noted the role that Stokley has played in readying the Denver pass-catchers for the offense that has been installed to suit Manning’s strengths. And for the level of preparation that is expected by the four-time most valuable player quarterback. And Stokley, like Brooking, 36 years old, is a guy who appeared in just two games in 2011 and caught one pass.
“But he can (impart) so much,” Thomas allowed.
Fox, who can be as wily as his surname, is a smart guy. Savvy enough to surround himself with smart guys, too. And Brooking is the latest.
Said Fox of his collection of oldies: “They can all bring something to the table.”
In his 11 seasons with the Falcons, and three with the Cowboys, Brooking has played all three linebacker spots in the 4-3. He has twice in his career transitioned to a 3-4. Longtime league coach Wade Phillips, who tutored Brooking at both of his previous stops, has gushed about his football knowledge. And let’s be serious here, it’s that football acumen, not the ability to make 100 tackles, as Brooking has done 11 times in his career, that Fox most coveted.
Brooking’s signing in Denver on Monday didn’t warrant anything approximating the headlines that another addition, Terrell Owens in Seattle, did on the same day. It might be that Brooking doesn’t even survive onto the regular season roster with the Broncos. But Fox knew, just as he did with several of the older players he added in the offseason, what he was getting.
And while Brooking and some of the others won’t have lengthy stays in Denver, the coach is counting on their impacts eclipsing their tenures.