IRVING, Texas — Whatever reasons the Atlanta Falcons had for giving up on linebacker Keith Brooking, the Dallas Cowboys are sure glad they did.
As intense as ever in his 12th NFL season, Brooking leads the team in tackles and has brought an edge they were missing. He’s become the emotional leader and has a great feel for the pulse of the team.
Brooking insists he’s not by trying to prove anything to the folks in Atlanta. Still, he gets that chance Sunday, when Matt Ryan and the Falcons come to Cowboys Stadium.
“I’d be lying to you if I was like, ‘Ah, I’m not trying to prove to those guys that I can still do it at a high level,’” he said. “But that’s not my priority. ... I’m 12 years into my career. That window of opportunity is narrowing every passing day. I know I’m much closer to the end of my career than the beginning. I just want to enjoy these last few years and get the most out of every day and cherish every moment.”
Brooking, the Cowboys have learned, does everything at full speed.
He’s thrown haymakers at assistant coaches, and that was after he made a great play. He ran down the sideline watching receiver Miles Austin score a touchdown against Kansas City, then was the first guy off the bench to give Austin a stinging high-five.
“They call him ‘The Mad ‘Backer,’” running back Tashard Choice said. “You stay away from Brook when he gets like that.”
Football fans in Atlanta know all about it.
Brooking grew up in the area and never left — from youth leagues to high school, from college at Georgia Tech to 11 seasons with the Falcons. Atlanta took him in the first round of the 1998 draft and, as a rookie, he helped the Falcons make the Super Bowl. He made the Pro Bowl every year from 2001 to ‘05 and led the team in tackles the last eight seasons.
Last year, Brooking struggled in pass coverage and was out of position on a key play in a playoff loss. His contract ran out and the Falcons let him go.
Brooking picked Dallas because coach Wade Phillips was his defensive coordinator in Atlanta in 2002 and ‘03, the only years he had more than 200 tackles. Best of all, the Cowboys had a vacancy at his position, weakside inside linebacker.
Zach Thomas played there last season, then moved on. Brooking’s arrival seemed like a swap of grizzled veterans, good enough to plug in on first and second downs, but nothing special.
At least, that was the perception.
“I looked at him on tape and he looked like he did before — and what he did before was outstanding,” Phillips said. “We thought he’d be a good fit for us and he is.”
Brooking does get replaced by a defensive back in most passing situations. But when he’s in there, No. 51 is usually in the middle of the action.
On a fourth down against Denver two games ago, he flew into the backfield and plowed into Denver’s Knowshon Moreno, standing him up to prevent a first down. Against the Chiefs, he picked up his first sack since November 2007, but turned even more heads on a play in which he was leveled by a cut block but still got up and tackled running back Jamaal Charles on a screen pass.
“Have I lost a little bit?” Brooking said. “Yeah, I’ve lost a little bit. C’mon, I’m realistic about it. But I’m better than most.”
He smiled and laughed, then continued explaining this revitalization that seems a surprise to everyone but him.
“I knew that if I played a position that really suits me that I could still get it done at a high level,” he said. “There was never any doubt. Once I landed here on that first day of free agency, I knew what was going to take place.”
Sure enough, Brooking has 29 solo tackles and 37 total stops. He’s ahead of fellow inside linebacker Bradie James, who’s led Dallas in tackles the last four years.
“I see an excitement out of Keith, like he’s really having fun playing the game still,” Falcons center Todd McClure said. “He’s able to run and make plays.”
When Brooking arrived, he realized he was the new guy. He couldn’t declare himself a leader; he had to earn it. So he quietly did his job over the summer, showing he was a tireless worker and a guy who knew the playbook.
Then the games started to count and teammates saw the real Keith Brooking.
“He just wants to win,” nose tackle Jay Ratliff said. “You can sense that from him. You can’t help but feed off of that.”
After Dallas lost to Denver, Brooking felt comfortable enough to speak up, telling reporters the team needed to work harder in practice. When the Cowboys needed overtime to beat the lowly Chiefs, Brooking was the first player at his locker the next day to answer questions about what went wrong.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to help this team win,” Brooking said. “If it’s keeping my mouth shut and not saying a word, then you won’t hear me talk for the rest of the year. If it’s standing up and saying something that needs to be said, I’m going to stand up and say something.
“Whatever this team needs, I’ll be there for them and to help them in any possible way that I can. That’s the only way I know how to do things.”