The year before he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, James Farrior registered 181 tackles, forced three fumbles and defended nine passes - numbers that surely put him among the pantheon of the league's good linebackers.
Farrior, however, wanted to be great, so he went to a place where he knew he could be.
"The Steelers have a great tradition with their linebackers. If you want to be a great linebacker, this is a good place," Farrior said.
Farrior left the New York Jets for Pittsburgh following the 2001 season, and now, after leading the team with 119 tackles, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries this year, it may be time to include Farrior with the likes of Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas as the game's elite middle linebackers.
Asked about his season (which also included four interceptions), Farrior gives the company line, crediting the system and the players around him. Considering how the Steelers keep churning out Pro Bowl linebackers year after year, Farrior may be correct in giving the system its due.
The Steelers' 3-4 defense does appear to be bigger than any individual, and will have its biggest test of the year in Sunday's AFC championship game against the New England Patriots.
Since coach Bill Cowher took over in 1992, the Steelers have lost a number of quality linebackers, but always seem to have an able replacement waiting in the wings. This year, former Defensive Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl player Kendrell Bell has participated in just three games because of a groin injury, but Larry Foote's play has made Bell's absence negligible.
When Bell was healthy enough to play in those games midway through the season, he was a part-time player behind Foote, who was primarily a special teams player the previous two years.
"We try to keep good depth so that when we have lost players, other players have been able to step in within this system," Cowher said. "The system really hasn't changed through the years, so players when they are learning through the system, when they step in, they are well-groomed players.
"And that's been the one thing that has been good about keeping the continuity on both sides of the ball. I can say that we have changed coordinators on both sides of the ball but the systems have not changed one bit."
Foote, who has started every game this season, finished fourth on the team with 78 tackles and also recorded three sacks.
"My teammates had faith in me," said Foote, who had four tackles in the Steelers' 20-17 overtime win over the New York Jets on Saturday. "They'd never seen me do it in front of the lights. So that was my goal when they told me I was a starter the first game, to gain the respect and the trust from my teammates and coaching staff. As the season kept going, they had more faith in me.
"When you put on the black and gold for the Steelers and the great linebackers they had coming through here and the defense they play around here, I feel good about it. I know it's a lot of pressure, but I accept the challenge."
Foote was not the only new face asked to do what many of the previous linebackers had done. After starting just four games in four years, Clark Haggans replaced longtime Steeler Jason Gildon, a passing of the torch that happens frequently with this franchise.
Gildon, a three-time Pro Bowl player who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, originally replaced Chad Brown in 1998, who was coming off a Pro Bowl year but signed with the Seattle Seahawks. Haggans, with six sacks this season, may find himself in Hawaii soon.
"They look for guys to be part of this family," outside linebacker Joey Porter said. "[The organization] prides itself on that. We pride ourselves in being part of this."
Before Foote replaced Bell, Bell took over for Levon Kirkland in 2001 and Farrior replaced Earl Holmes the next year. Kirkland and Holmes had manned the middle of the defense since 1997 and were two of their more popular players.
Porter, the current leader of the group, replaced Carlos Emmons, who left as a free agent in 2000. Emmons has been a productive player, starting the past five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, but Porter was voted to his second Pro Bowl this year.
Porter and Haggans combined to miss four games this season, but in stepped James Harrison, who was cut in 2003 during the Ravens' training camp. Harrison, as athletic as the four starters, was a disruptive force, especially against the Ravens (Dec. 26) when he kept pressure on quarterback Kyle Boller and batted down two passes.
"We're a very resilient group," Farrior said. "All the linebackers on the team have done a great job all year. If somebody got hurt, whoever came in stepped up and made big plays and had an impact. As a group we feel like we are one of the best group of linebackers in the league."