TAMPA — When Derrick Brooks intercepted the 39th of Rich Gannon’s 44 passes and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown to seal the Bucs’ victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, Warrick Dunn just sort of shrugged his shoulders.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, well, that’s Derrick; what do you expect?’ ” the former Bucs running back said. “Derrick was always making that interception, that big hit, that game-changing play.”
More often than not, at least during that Super Bowl season, those game-changing plays were touchdowns off takeaways. Brooks had four during the regular season alone, the most by an NFL linebacker, and finished his career with eight total.
The three interceptions Brooks returned for touchdowns were the most ever for a linebacker in a season, though even Brooks admits they might not have materialized had he not been given a nudge by coach Jon Gruden.
Shortly after taking over the Bucs that year, Gruden noticed during film study that Brooks had a tendency to simply secure the ball instead of advancing it after he made an interception.
“He told me, ‘Hey, man, you’re missing one part of your game that you need to step up,’ ” Brooks related. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, Coach?’ And he says, ‘You don’t put the ball in the end zone.’ And then he walks away.
“So, I follow him and say, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he says, ‘You make too many plays not to score. Some of those interceptions, you make sure you secure the ball, but I want you to score. Be global, man. If you’re the best in the league, we can win a Super Bowl.’ So I said, ‘OK, Coach, I’m going to do my best for you.’ And he’s like, ‘(Forget) that. Just score touchdowns, all right?’ ”
It didn’t take long for Brooks to comply with Gruden’s wishes. After doing some film study of his own and realizing Gruden’s critique of his passive approach to takeaways was accurate, Brooks scored his first touchdown in the Bucs’ second game.
It came off a 97-yard return of a Chris Redman pass that put the finishing touches on a 25-0 victory over the Ravens and sparked one of the most unprecedented scoring streaks in NFL history.
A week later, on “Monday Night Football,” Brooks intercepted Kurt Warner of the Rams with 59 seconds to play and returned the ball 39 yards for a touchdown that secured a 26-14 victory.
His third score off a takeaway came two weeks later, during a 20-6 victory over the Falcons, and for the third time it was a fourth-quarter score that proved to be the final and most decisive score of the game.
It also might have been the most electrifying of his scores that year, coming off a lateral he received from Warren Sapp, who intercepted Falcons quarterback Rob Johnson before flipping the ball to Brooks to finish the play.
“First he was a playmaker, then he became a scorer,” Sapp said of his longtime Bucs roommate. “Then it became ugly, a joke almost the way he played this thing. It was a masterful thing.”
Brooks’ masterful execution of the takeaway-turned-touchdown continued two weeks later when he picked up a Donovan McNabb fumble early in a 20-10 loss to the Eagles and returned it 11 yards for the score. It was the Bucs’ only touchdown that day and the last for Brooks until Super Bowl Sunday in San Diego, where Tampa Bay was starting to lose what had seemed like a stranglehold on the game.
The Bucs led by 31 points in the third quarter, but the Raiders started a comeback and cut the Bucs’ lead to 13 points before driving the ball to midfield with two minutes to play.
But on third-and-18 from the Oakland 29-yard line, Brooks put an end to all that by stepping in front of a Gannon pass for Marcus Knight, who watched helplessly as Brooks galloped away toward the end zone.
“They had scored again and you could see the tide changing a little bit,” Brooks said. “But we got to this third down and I just dropped into the zone, felt the release of the receiver and just broke on the football.
“As I’m heading down the sideline I was like, ‘Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. Score.’ And then as I was reaching the 5-yard line I looked up and I was like, ‘This is it; this is over.’ ’’
Brian Kelly was the first one to reach me (in the end zone after scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII) and he jumps on my back. The next thing you know I’m on the bottom of the pile and when I got up, I thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to win the Super Bowl in Tampa.’ — Derrick Brooks
♦ Mr. Touchdown
Derrick Brooks scored 10 touchdowns during his career, seven during the regular season, one during Super Bowl XXXVII and two during Pro Bowls. Many, including former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, believe he could have scored more.
The league’s heavy emphasis on the passing attack was really coming into vogue when Brooks came into the league, and Dungy thought Brooks had the skill set necessary to be an even more dominant defender of such schemes.
“More and more, people were trying to get Don Coryell’s guys and Mike Martz’s guys, because they wanted to spread (defenses) out and attack the way they do now,” Dungy said. “Derrick was just ahead of the curve being able to play against that.
“He had played some safety when he was in college at Florida State, so he could play in the passing game. He could move out and cover wide receivers because he’d done it before.’’
Even Brooks believes he could have scored more touchdowns. He admits that after Jon Gruden challenged him to score touchdowns, he reviewed tape of his interceptions and fumble recoveries and realized he’d left some points on the field.
“I went back and watched every one of my turnovers and he was right,’’ Brooks said. “There were opportunities for me to go the house late in the ballgame and I just wanted to secure the win and I’d get down. On fumbles, instead of grabbing it to run, I pounced on it instead of scooping. I went for the tip instead of the two-hand pick.”
♦ Mr. Touchdown, too
Derrick Brooks’ penchant for scoring touchdowns was well-established by the time he got to the NFL. Five games into FSU’s 1993 national championship season, its opponents had scored just two touchdowns.
Brooks had three.
“That’s D-Brooks right there,’’ said former Seminoles safety Devin Bush, who was Brooks’ roommate. “Always making something happen.’’
FSU opened with a 42-0 shutout of Kansas. In Week 2, during a 45-7 win against Duke, Brooks scored on a 32-yard interception return: Brooks 7, Opponents 7.
In Week 3, Brooks capped a 57-0 rout of Clemson with an 83-yard fumble return: Brooks 14, Opponents 7.
Week 4 saw Brooks score on a 49-yard interception return in a 33-7 victory against North Carolina: Brooks 21, Opponents 14.
Neither side scored in Week 5, when FSU beat Georgia Tech 51-0.
In Week 6, when FSU downed Miami 28-10, the opponents finally took the lead for good in this game-within-a-game: Opponents 24, Brooks 21.
“He knew how to seize the moment,’’ former Seminoles defensive end Derrick Alexander said. “It seemed like every week he was taking it to the house.’’