To New England quarterback Tom Brady, the scent of so much fresh meat must be overpowering. He has been known to tear into the rookies on his own team. What, then, is Brady going to do when he zeroes in on some poor plebe across the line Sunday night against the Falcons?
Why, he was winning his first Super Bowl when Falcons rookie linebacker Joplo Bartu was but 10 years old.
“It hit me when I first got here, the veteran players I’m seeing now that I’ve been looking up to through junior high and high school,” Bartu said. (Really, some as far back as fourth grade). “I’m just taking it all in.”
Brady had displaced Drew Bledsoe and formed his pact with Bill Belichick about the time cornerback Desmond Trufant was learning long division out in the great Northwest.
“I’ve been watching him for a long time,” the Falcons’ 2013 first-round pick said. “It’s big (facing Brady), but I’ve got to prepare just like any other week and be ready when my number is called.”
“It’s pretty cool,” said another of the apprentice defenders, linebacker Paul Worrilow. “But I can’t really look at it like that. You try to just know what your job is this week and zero in on that and try not to get caught up in the theatrics.”
Got to admit, though, it is classic theater, based on the timeless theme of class struggle, NFL style.
Long ago, Asante Samuel was rookie cornerback, too. He came from far deeper in the draft (fourth round) and from far more humble collegiate surroundings (Central Florida) than Trufant. He had to make his bones against a fellow named Peyton Manning. “I did all right,” he remembered. Not like Samuel would admit it if he didn’t.
Now, a decade later, Samuel, who played with Brady for the first five seasons of his career, is the one who must try to prepare the youngsters on defense for what is coming.
This is one of the gems he’ll pass along, he said: “You got to prepare and be ready for a guy who is something you’ve never seen before in your young career. You’re going to play against one of the best. The execution and the tempo are going to be unbelievable. So don’t be shocked.”
Depending on the situation, the Falcons’ defense will deploy one or more of a clutch of rookies this evening — linebackers Bartu and Worrilow, defensive backs Trufant and Robert Alford.
Working to their advantage is the inexperience on the Patriots’ offense. Brady has had issues getting in sync with a remade receiving unit. In 2007, his Patriots set an NFL scoring record with nearly 37 points per game. They have yet to score more than 23 in any of their first three games this season. The return of tight end Rob Gronkowski is unknown. And the handcuffs really have restricted Aaron Hernandez’s reach.
All that notwithstanding, the Falcons rookies must know they are marked for abuse Sunday night, like so many fraternity pledges.
A rookie has no choice but to bow up.
“If they want to test me, or come my way, I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Bartu said.
Being tested, “that’s every week,” Trufant said.
“Every team has a good quarterback. When they see a rookie they are going to come at me. That’s just how it goes. I’m going to be ready.”
Imagine what a dizzying experience Sunday night will be for some of these 22- and 23-year-old players. There is a real Horatio Alger feel to the Falcons’ current linebacking situation. Both Bartu and Worrilow, undrafted free agents, made themselves valuable largely because of their pass-coverage abilities. Bartu started last week against Miami. Both have never experienced a game of this scale (Drew Brees in New Orleans to open the season was close).
Worrilow figured the biggest TV audience he played in front of before this season was the 2010 FCS Championship game, when his Delaware team lost to Eastern Washington. “Honestly, I don’t know how many people watched that,” he said.
And it’s safe to say that ESPN’s “College Game Day” never went to San Marcos, Texas, to do any of Bartu’s Texas State games.
And here they both are likely to play roles of varied significance on a stage that draws “Dancing with the Stars” kind of viewership.
“At the end of the day it’s football, not who’s watching,” Bartu said. “Doesn’t matter if there are 2,000 people watching or 80,000 people watching or the whole wide world watching. You do what you do and play your kind of football.”
Just two months ago, they were undrafted and uncertain. Now here they are preparing to face Brady. Here they are talking about countering the tempo of the Patriots’ offense, perfecting their communication skills, disrupting one of the signature quarterbacks of the age.
Neither time nor circumstance has allowed any of them to be taken aback by the moment, to be overwhelmed by the great competitive distance they have travelled in such a short time.
“You don’t want to come in and get taken by surprise, and be like, ‘Oh, man, I’m really here.’ This is something you work for and you envision yourself doing,” Worrilow said.
There is no precise pattern for how these youngest defenders will be rotated in and out Sunday night. Some, of course, will appear far more regularly than others. Some are situational specialists. Tom Brady will know where they are.