By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – We’ve reached the point in Patriots history where the logjam to get in to the team’s hall of fame is going to start looking like the line for the men’s room in the 300 sections of Gillette Stadium at halftime on a Sunday . Such is the result of two decades of outlandish success.
It’s been that way for a few years, and it’ll be that way for a long while. This year’s list of final candidates – Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Mike Vrabel – is evidence of that reality.
And while there’s certainly no bad choice for this year’s Patriots Hall of Fame, my vote’s going to Mike Vrabel.
Really, for as long as Bill Belichick thrust his winning ways on the rest of the NFL, the term “Patriot Way” has carried several definitions. Chief among them, though, has been Belichick’s ability to find value and ability where others have not. And who could possibly embody that spirit more than Mike Vrabel?
(OK, Tom Brady is the answer to that question. But we’re looking at the human-level plane of existence for the time being.)
Despite being a relatively high pick at No. 97 overall in 1997 out of Ohio State, Vrabel never really caught on during his four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He did not start any games, averaged fewer than two sacks per season, and recorded just 56 total tackles across 51 games.
Despite Vrabel getting limited action in Pittsburgh, Belichick liked something about the linebacker and signed him as a free agent in 2001. It was hardly a move that generated buzz or headlines, but it ended up being one of the most significant additions of the entire Belichick tenure.
Vrabel immediately set career highs in tackles, sacks, interceptions, pass defenses, and tackles for a loss in his first year, starting 12 games and fitting right in with a defense that was, in a word, nasty. With that Patriots team reaching the Super Bowl as enormous underdogs against the St. Louis Rams, Ty Law’s pick-six was the play that made New England and the rest of the world believe the Patriots actually had a chance to win the game. On that play, it was Vrabel who was harassing Kurt Warner in the backfield, forcing the bad decision and leading immediately to the first Patriots points of the game.
It only went up from there for Vrabel, who upped his tackles and sacks in 2002 before a ridiculous 2003 season. In his third year in New England, Vrabel recorded 9.5 sacks in just 13 games played (reminder: he had seven sacks in four years in Pittsburgh). He also picked off two passes and recovered a fumble before a postseason where he had three more sacks, 18 tackles, a pass defense and a forced fumble. Oh, and he lined up as a tight end and caught a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
A year later, he was steady with 5.5 sacks, and he made that pass-catching hobby of his a regular thing, catching two passes for two more touchdowns.
Vrabel remained a consistent contributor over the next two seasons, sacking the quarterback nine times and also catching three more touchdowns. But in 2007, one of the finest regular seasons for any team in NFL history, Vrabel turned in his own finest season: with 12.5 sacks, 77 tackles, four forced fumbles, 17 quarterback hits, and a couple of touchdown receptions for good measure.
Vrabel had always been the type of player who was instrumental in winning championships, even if he did not have the Pro Bowl nods or the First Team All-Pro honors to show for it. That year, though, he got both.
His Patriots career ended after the 2008 season, when he was sent to Kansas City in the Matt Cassel trade. He’d play just two seasons with the Chiefs, registering only two sacks in 30 games.
In a place where discovering big-time players in unlikely places was a hallmark of the championship days, Vrabel fit that bill like no other.
In a place where “Do Your Job” became the overriding mantra, nobody was more willing than Vrabel.
And whether doing his job meant harassing the quarterback or inexplicably getting open in the end zone for the umpteenth time to haul in a touchdown pass from Tom Brady, Vrabel was always the man for the moment. After spending five years as a finalist for this unique honor, his next moment ought to involve a red jacket this summer in Foxboro.
Unlike many sports accolades, a media member’s vote does not count any more than a fan’s vote. And fans can cast their vote for either Mike Vrabel, Vince Wilfork, or Logan Mankins through May 16 at patriots.com/HOF.