JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Truth be told, Tom Brady would rather toss a Super Bowl touchdown pass to almost anyone but Mike Vrabel. At least that’s the way Vrabel described their relationship last night after the Patriots linebacker cameoed as a receiver and snagged a touchdown pass from Brady in a second straight Super Bowl.
”Tom gets mad at me in practice and won’t throw it to me,” Vrabel said after his acrobatic catch helped the Patriots stop the Eagles, 24-21, for their third Super Bowl victory in four years. “But during the game, he didn’t have a choice.”
In the natural order of football, quarterbacks have little love for linebackers, even their own.
”I’m always yapping at him in practice as part of `The Dirty Show,’ “ Vrabel said, referring to New England’s scout team. “So he doesn’t like it when I come over on offense.”
Good thing Brady follows his game plan rather than his emotions. With the Patriots slogging through a 7-7 deadlock early in the third quarter, Vrabel improved his career receiving record to a perfect 5 for 5 (all touchdowns) when he broke free of Eagles strongman Jevon Kearse’s clutch in the end zone and hauled in Brady’s 2-yard throw. Vrabel also lined up as a tight end last year and snared a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Brady to help the Patriots defeat the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.
”What started out as a gimmick certainly has somewhat evolved into an every-game, every-week package,” Vrabel said, holding his 3-year-old son, Carter, on his knee after the game. “I’m just fortunate to be part of it.”
While the strategy has become common for the Patriots in goal-line situations, Vrabel’s catch was the most spectacular of his limited but high-profile career as a receiver. Kearse wrapped up Vrabel so tightly he was called for a holding penalty, yet Vrabel managed to break free and make the diving catch.
”Jevon was hanging all over me and pulling me down from the back,” Vrabel said. “I was lucky enough just to tip it up and hang onto it when I hit the ground.”
In a playful impersonation of a Terrell Owens touchdown dance, Vrabel celebrated by flapping his arms as if he were one of Philadelphia’s “dirty birds.” But the arm-flapping routine may also have been aimed at some of his team’s detractors.
”We stood up to a lot of challenges and put up with the stigma of being these average guys who went out there as pieces for Bill Belichick,” Vrabel said. “We have great coaches, but we also have great players that go out and play hard.”
Vrabel, as he has in the past Super Bowls, played a crucial role on defense as well as offense. Three years after he helped the Patriots begin their reign of supremacy by forcing Kurt Warner of the Rams to throw an errant pass that Ty Law returned 47 yards for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, Vrabel last night made one of his team’s biggest defensive plays.
With the Eagles threatening at the Patriots’ 8-yard line after a 30-yard reception by Owens and an unnecessary roughness penalty on Rosevelt Colvin, Vrabel sacked Donovan McNabb for a 16-yard loss, all but halting a lengthy Philadelphia drive. McNabb, trying to recover from the setback, threw his next two passes for interceptions. The first pick, by Asante Samuel, was nullified by an illegal contact penalty on Roman Phifer. But Rodney Harrison picked off McNabb’s next pass to further capitalize on Vrabel’s sack.
Vrabel also played a key role in New England’s linebacker-rich, realigned defense that helped the front line and injury-depleted secondary frustrate Philadelphia’s offense much of the game. Yet his sack hardly registered on his list of favorite Super Bowl moments.
”Touchdowns are always bigger than sacks, especially in the Super Bowl,” he said. “They’re few and far between.”
Vrabel, 29, a former Ohio State star, last year became the first defensive player to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl since Chicago’s William Perry against the Patriots in 1986. Vrabel began his novelty act during the regular season in 2002 when he caught a touchdown pass from Brady against the Chargers, becoming the first New England defensive player to catch a touchdown pass since linebacker John Tanner pulled in one from Jim Plunkett against Baltimore in 1974.
Never mind that Vrabel’s 2-yard catch last night matched the longest reception of his career. With the victory, he earned his third Super Bowl ring since the Patriots signed him in 2001 after an unimpressive stint with the Steelers. Vrabel appreciates the leap he has made.
”I could barely envision even getting starts four or five years ago,” he said. “It would have been tough to imagine catching touchdowns in the Super Bowl.”
Vrabel was too busy taking biochemistry after last year’s Super Bowl to receive his ring during a ceremony in May at owner Robert Kraft’s home and join his teammates in June visiting the White House. This year won’t be a problem.
”I don’t plan on taking any more classes,” he said.
But he does plan on bigger things for the Patriots.
”This team is set up for championships, and that’s our goal,” he said. “I don’t think we’re necessarily finished.”