FOXBOROUGH — Malcontent. Punk. Thug.
Those are some of the words that followed cornerback Aqib Talib to New England when the Buccaneers traded him in November 2012, sent packing by a team that had enough of his antics and had no intention of re-signing him when his contract expired at the end of that season.
The tags and the baggage that accompanied Talib were earned, something he acknowledges.
When your first four-plus NFL seasons are marred by fights with teammates, disregard for team rules, two arrests, and a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, it’s hard to be seen as anything other than a malcontent.
Or punk. Or thug.
But in his nearly 15 months in New England, Talib has endeared himself to his teammates and coaches with an infectious enthusiasm he carries with him in meeting rooms, on the practice field, and in games.
Just the mention of “Aqib Talib” in the locker room will bring a smile to the face of a Patriots teammate.
“He’s one of a kind . . . one of a kind,” special teams ace Matthew Slater said with a chuckle and a shake of his head. “On and off the field.”
Talib’s joie de football has been on full display this season, perhaps never more so than an early August training camp practice in Philadelphia, where the Patriots and Eagles had three days of joint sessions.
On the second day, Tom Brady and the New England offense went 11 on 11 against the Eagles’ best defensive players, and Brady & Co. were carving them up, the quarterback completing passes to every receiver, leading to multiple touchdowns.
And there was Talib, cheering on his teammates from the sideline, waving a towel and whooping and hollering every big play, his raspy but high-pitched voice tinged with a Texas drawl filling the unseasonably cool air.
In the closing seconds of the Week 4 game in Atlanta, after he tipped away the game-tying touchdown intended for Roddy White to seal a New England win, Talib found his way to the bench, sat down, and propped his arms up, clearly pleased with his effort.
“Aqib’s awesome, man,” safety Steve Gregory said. “He’s as highly competitive a guy as I’ve ever been around. His ability, he’s a big corner, he’s physical, his athleticism, his ability to make plays on the ball — he’s just a really good football player, and I’m glad he’s on my side.
“His personality is unlike anyone I’ve ever been around as well. He’s a very entertaining guy.”
Before suffering a hip injury against the Saints in the sixth game of the season, Talib was playing cornerback at a level not seen in New England since the days of Ty Law.
Until he was forced off the field, he held the Saints’ All-Pro tight end, Jimmy Graham, to zero catches; against his former Buccaneers teammate and three-time Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson in September, he yielded just three catches for 34 yards; Cincinnati’s A.J. Green totaled 1,426 yards this season, but only 61 came against Talib and the Patriots.
The injury forced Talib to miss three games and has continued to affect him, but he has gotten better as he’s gotten healthier.
The setback didn’t frustrate Talib, who played this season on a one-year, $5 million deal and will likely be one of the top cornerbacks in free agency.
“It’s an injury. I was happy — I was out there for the Panthers game, the first Denver game, still feeling a bunch of pain,” he said. “So I feel like I did pretty good playing through that injury, toughing it out, getting out there. It wasn’t [equal to] the first six games, but I wasn’t terrible. I still went out and shadowed their best guy.
“I didn’t get down, just have to play through it; it’s football.”
Earlier this season, Talib said the structure and expectations placed on players in New England have helped him “a bunch,” and that things acceptable in other places just don’t fly with the Patriots.
When asked about his demeanor this season, Talib insists he’s not any different.
“I’ve been the same person: outgoing, I laugh all the time,” he said. “What y’all seeing right now, it’s good times, no trouble off the field, so you see the good side. I’ve been the same. I haven’t changed; I’m the same guy.”
That guy knows there is a time to cut up and a time to get serious, a guy who loves to trash talk, a guy who has become a mentor to the younger defensive backs.
“Everyone sees his physical talent on the field,” rookie cornerback Logan Ryan said. “But mentally — I’ve been around Devin [McCourty], he’s one of the sharper players in the NFL, but Aqib’s right up there also. A lot of people might not know that, but he knows a lot, he’s played a lot of football, guarded a lot of the top receivers. So just getting the little things from Aqib, it’s helped me a lot.”
“I’ve been lining up against that guy since OTAs. Talib is a tremendous competitor,” rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins said.
Talib, 27, earned status as an “assistant pro personnel director” from coach Bill Belichick. When Belichick was thinking of acquiring running back LeGarrette Blount from Tampa Bay, he asked Talib for his opinion. Blount is Talib’s best friend in the NFL — or as Talib frequently calls him, “my dawg.”
Everything Talib said about Blount was true, Belichick said, and Blount has been a key part of the Patriots’ offensive success the last month.
When Talib came to New England, the Patriots shuffled the locker room stalls and placed him next to McCourty, a team captain who could show him the ropes.
McCourty has become a big fan in their time as neighbors.
“He’s just always up, his squeaky voice, you can always hear it, and I think he’s brought a good atmosphere or his aura, whatever he brings, it’s been really good for us in the secondary and as a team,” McCourty said. “He’s done a great job of stepping in and whatever we ask, he’s done it and he’s laughing about it, he’s joking about it, he accepts all challenges and he’s a true competitor.
“He’s a veteran guy that understands the game of football and he does a good job being an older brother to the younger guys and still a clown with everyone else. It’s been a pleasure having him on the team.”
Brady loves the enthusiasm Talib has brought to the Patriots, and believes the cornerback might not understand how much it has helped the team.
“I think that wears off on everybody else. When you bring that energy and emotion into an already emotional game and it’s in a positive way . . . he probably doesn’t even know how important that is, how much that helps,” Brady said. “It’s contagious. And then when you get everyone going in the same direction as a football team, that’s when you’re dangerous.”