FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots watched in unison, gathering around a television in the bowels of Gillette Stadium as one of their leaders gave an emotional goodbye just down the hallway.
Tedy Bruschi announced his retirement Monday during a press conference that was broadcasted live on local and national TV, putting some finality on the news that began circulating through the organization Sunday afternoon when Bruschi called his teammates to inform them of his decision.
When Bruschi’s media session ended, his former teammates returned to the locker room to gear up for their first practice without him at their backs. Now, it’s on the young corps of linebackers to fill the sudden void at their position.
“It’s a huge void,” preseason captain Jerod Mayo said. “It’ll be tougher for the linebacker group to fill [Bruschi’s] void just as a person, let alone as a football player. It’ll take a group effort to do that.”
When safety Rodney Harrison announced his retirement in June, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather were faced with the task of picking up their leadership abilities. Now, it’s up to linebackers Adalius Thomas and Mayo, the 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year, to amp up their responsibilities. As always, defensive linemen Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork will be mainstays as defensive leaders, but it must become more of a micromanaged task during positional meetings.
“I think you use numerous people to fill the void, especially for a guy who has been here for so long,” said Thomas, a nine-year veteran who is entering his third season with the Patriots. “You can’t replace a person like that. He’s been here, seen so much, been through so many things, so you just come in and other people have to fill that void with whatever it is that they do.”
Mayo has acted as Bruschi’s protégé since the day he first set foot in Foxborough, and the 23-year-old emerged as the Patriots’ best playmaking linebacker last season, registering a team-high 139 total tackles and 93 solo tackles, along with four pass defenses, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
The Tennessee product has been in charge of making the defensive play calls in the preseason — a possible sign that Bruschi was weighing retirement — and he has already emerged as a standout leader.
“Jerod Mayo is a great player,” Bruschi said. “He’s going to be a great leader. I talked to him [Sunday] and just felt privileged to be around him for a year and a half. He himself has the desire just to be good, and that’s great. From the first meeting, all of the questions that he would ask me, and how he would be next to me on the practice field and sort of pick my brain, I knew this was a kid that [football] really meant a lot to.”
It will also be important for second-year middle linebacker Gary Guyton to continue with his development. The undrafted free agent showed some serious potential last season as a backup, and he earned two starts as a result. Guyton had 26 tackles (22 solo) in 2008 with three pass defenses and two fumble recoveries. He also had a season-high five tackles (four solo) against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9 and the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 13.
The talent is certainly live at the top of the Patriots’ depth chart, but they’ll really need linebackers Eric Alexander, Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable, Rob Ninkovich and Paris Lenon and Tully Banta-Cain to provide quality depth off the bench.
While it was uncertain what Bruschi’s role would have been if he remained with the team in 2009, the Patriots were already unproven further down the depth chart. As Mayo put it, there’s really only one way the linebackers can step up to honor Bruschi’s legacy.
“Play hard, and go hard every play,” Mayo said. “Just give it your all every play. You don’t know when it’s going to be your last play.”
All the while, living in the past won’t get the Patriots anywhere. It might be a shock to their system right now, but they’ve got to move on without Bruschi. For the younger players who haven’t fully grasped the business side of the game, that can be a difficult task. Because of that, Mayo’s leadership skills will be put to immediate work.
“[Bruschi] told me then that one day he’ll pass the torch on to me and the rest of this team,” Mayo said. “I guess today is that day.”
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