If ever a player was born for his job, he is Atlanta middle linebacker Keith Brooking.
A native of Senoia, Ga., 40 miles southeast of Atlanta, the 26-year-old Brooking is a lifelong Falcons fan. He played his college ball at Georgia Tech, not far from the Georgia Dome.
Although Atlanta’s top choice in the 1998 draft had spent his college and pro career before this season at outside linebacker, he’s thrilled to be filling the vacancy caused by last summer’s retirement of 13-year starter Jessie Tuggle.
“I’m honored to be replacing a great player and a great leader like Jessie,” said Brooking, whose surging Falcons (6-4) will try to gain ground in the NFC West when division leader St. Louis (8-2) visits Sunday. “I always wanted to be the middle linebacker. You’re the one making all the [defensive] calls. You’ve got to be a leader. You’re supposed to play with an unbridled passion, love the game more than life itself.”
Brooking, who has had at least 10 tackles and a big play (an interception, forced fumble, sack or fumble recovery) in eight of Atlanta’s 10 games, is such a student of football that his hero is Hall of Fame middle linebacker Dick Butkus, who retired from the Chicago Bears five years before Brooking was born. Brooking even named his dog “Butkus.”
After playing like dogs in 1999 and 2000 going 9-23 the Falcons have won four of their past five games, summoning memories of 1998, when they came out of nowhere behind halfback Jamal Anderson to win the NFC and advance to their only Super Bowl.
Atlanta doesn’t do anything particularly well ranking in the top half of the league’s key statistics only in rushing (11th) and scoring defense (12th). But that latter ranking speaks volumes since the Falcons are 26th in yards allowed. In other words, Atlanta comes through in the clutch, winning five of seven games decided by eight points or less. Its red-zone defense is fourth in the NFC, and much-maligned, oft-injured quarterback Chris Chandler is the NFL’s top passer on third down and in the fourth quarter.
“This season has been more satisfying for me than 1998 because I’m in on every [defensive] play,” said Brooking, a nickel back as a rookie. “I was very disappointed the last two years. We played so badly that people had a right to say anything they wanted to about us. But all that criticism has helped us this year.
“People said that coach [Dan] Reeves would be gone if we didn’t make a run at the playoffs. They called [1999 first-round end] Patrick Kerney an underachiever, and he used that as a motivator. When Jamal went down, they said we were done, but [backs] Maurice Smith and Bob Christian have really stepped up. We believe in each other. We went into New Orleans and beat them with hard-nosed football. We never flinched at Green Bay, where the Packers and Brett Favre hardly ever lose.”
Given those performances, Brooking is confident about the Falcons’ chances against the high-powered Rams, even though St. Louis whipped Atlanta during their four meetings in 1999 and 2000.
“[Halfback] Marshall Faulk and the receivers are going to get their yards,” Brooking said. “The key is constantly getting in [quarterback] Kurt Warner’s face.”
But the Falcons sacked Warner eight times in the past four matchups and suffered a one-sided loss each time. And Atlanta still has the St. Louis and New Orleans rematches as well as a trip to Miami on tap. With Washington, Tampa Bay and New Orleans all just a game back, Atlanta’s hold on the final NFC playoff spot is tenuous. But barring a total collapse, the season already has been a success for Brooking and Co.
Trivia time How many coaches have the Falcons had? (Answer below).
Weird stat of the week As ABC reported Monday, no team that has lost to Tampa Bay has won the Super Bowl that season. That’s bad news for the Rams and Green Bay. And the Bucs still have to play contenders Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
Nine Super Bowl champions have beaten the Bucs en route to the title. That bodes well for the Packers, Bears and Pittsburgh, which already have defeated Tampa Bay.
Belated congratulations Buffalo’s Larry Centers surpassed Ronnie Harmon’s career record for receiving yards by a running back two weeks ago. Centers, who has an NFL-high 21 third-down grabs among his 60 catches, has 6,124 yards during his 12 seasons. The 33-year-old Tatum, Texas, native’s 745 catches are the most by a back and just six shy of passing Michael Irvin and Charlie Joiner to move into the NFL’s top 10.
Trivia answer 10 or 11, de-pending on whether you count Marion Campbell once or twice. He had two tours of duty in Atlanta.