JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 1 -- When Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb looks across the line Sunday afternoon at the New England defense, much of his attention will focus on the Patriots' four starting linebackers, a versatile unit of football-smart, big-game savvy veterans who represent the team-first spirit of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Asked earlier this week what concerned him the most about the Patriots' defense going into Super Bowl XXXIX, McNabb said: "Just how they play together and their chemistry out there. Those guys play so well together, and you can see the flow. They have each other's back. One guy might be out of position, but he has the confidence that the other guy can at least get back in position or help him out to make a play. They just seem to step up when the time is there to step up."
The linebackers -- Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson on the inside and Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel on the outside -- have played on the Patriots' past three Super Bowl teams. None was voted by players, coaches and fans to go to the Pro Bowl this year -- although Bruschi was named as a replacement for injured Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis on Tuesday -- but teammates and New England coaches know that without them, the Patriots would not be playing for their third Super Bowl title in four years.
Bruschi, a defensive lineman at Arizona, has become the embodiment of the Patriots' philosophy as a player who doesn't have an agent and renegotiated his contract extension in the offseason -- including a $3.5 million signing bonus and salaries totaling $3.9 million through the 2007 season. He almost certainly spurned a big free agent payday to stay with the team that first drafted him in the third round in 1996 when Coach Bill Belichick was the team's defensive coordinator.
"I'm not looking for any spotlight or any individual accolades," Bruschi said. "I'm just worrying about how to win a football game.
"If I wasn't the guy I was, I could easily be somewhere else. But I just said no because I don't want to play anywhere else. To me, [being in the Super Bowl] is what you want to do, this is what you want to be a part of, being here in this game and playing for another championship."
Belichick recently recalled that the Patriots' coaching staff at the time wasn't exactly sure how it would use Bruschi once New England selected him in the draft.
"I remember when we sat in the draft room and took him, the conversation was, 'Look, we're taking him. We're taking a good football player. We don't know what we're going to do with him exactly, but we'll figure out something,' " Belichick said. "He's the type of guy you want in every situation. He's just a football player."
Johnson arrived in New England a year before Bruschi in the second round from Colorado. Injuries in recent years have curtailed his playing time, but he started 15 games this past regular season and finished third on the team in total tackles. Probably the best run-stopper among the linebackers, he had eight tackles in the Patriots' 41-27 victory over the Steelers in the AFC title game. He's also a firm believer in Belichick's team concept. "A lot of our success is based on continuity," he said. "We all possess vastly different skills, and we all realize that and we accept our role. I can't do what Tedy does, or what Willie does, but they can't do some of the things I can do. It's just a unique group of talented players with a high level of character."
McGinest was the most heralded of the Patriots' current linebackers coming out of college, the fourth overall player taken from the Southern Cal in 1994. A defensive end for the Trojans, he's developed a well-earned reputation for making big plays in recent years, often in the biggest games. In a season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts, it was McGinest who helped seal the victory with a 12-yard sack of Peyton Manning, forcing a 48-yard field goal miss by Mike Vanderjagt.
"I consider myself a big-time player," McGinest said. "I don't do a lot of talking about it. We have a lot of big-time players on this team. If you consider yourself a player who can make an impact, then you have to make the big plays in the big games when it counts and when people need you. When it's either win or go home, the game on the line, if you can't depend on certain guys, then it's really no use."
Vrabel also has made a huge impact in New England as the only starting linebacker not originally drafted by the Patriots. He started his career in Pittsburgh, had some difficulty adjusting to the Steelers' system, then departed via free agency after the 2000 season. He signed with the Patriots and is at his best covering receivers out of the backfield or rushing the passer. He's also been used as a goal line tight end, catching two touchdowns this season, with a touchdown reception last year against Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
He's proud of his versatility and extremely proud to have finished his college degree in biochemistry at Ohio State this past offseason.
"I was in the classroom, in there with a bunch of nursing students," he said. "It was like 12 girls and me, which wasn't bad. I didn't have to take a whole lot of notes. The teacher kind of figured it out. I walked in, and it was kind of like, 'Why are you taking this class?' and it was like, 'Well, it's the last one I need to graduate.' It was cool. They watch [the games], and I get letters from everybody from the class, so it was cool."