- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Falcons wanted Brooking, a five-time Pro Bowler who led Atlanta in tackles the last eight seasons, to accept a reserve role and a drastically reduced salary. He refused to accept that his days as an every-down player were over and opted to rejoin Wade Phillips, his former defensive coordinator now coaching the Dallas Cowboys.
So nobody believed Brooking for a second when he pretended not to know which team was next on the Cowboys' schedule moments after their overtime victory against the Kansas City Chiefs. Brooking admits that he circled Sunday's date with the Falcons soon after signing a three-year, $6 million deal with Dallas.
"I would be lying to you if I were to say that I'm not trying to prove to these guys that I could still do it at a high level," said Brooking, who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, attended Georgia Tech and spent 11 seasons with the Falcons. "That's there. But that's not my priority."
His priority is to do whatever it takes to help the Cowboys win.
The 6-foot-2, 241-pound Brooking has proved he still can play. He began the season as a two-down linebacker, but he's played more in the nickel package as the season has progressed. He's been a beast in the base defense, making 55 tackles, according to the totals tallied by coaches after reviewing film.
Brooking didn't feel comfortable last season after moving from the middle to outside linebacker in the Falcons' 4-3 scheme. He's a better fit to play the weakside inside spot in Phillips' scheme. That's the position he played during the two most productive seasons of his career, when he made consecutive Pro Bowls while Phillips was the Falcons' defensive coordinator.
Phillips said he saw the same Brooking when watching film before the Cowboys offered the linebacker a contract. Brooking, however, acknowledges that isn't quite true.
"Have I lost a little bit? I mean, I'm 34 [on Oct. 30], so yeah, I've lost a little bit," Brooking said. "I mean, c'mon, I'm realistic about it. But I'm better than most."
When it comes to passion, Brooking is probably in the top percentile of NFL players.
His emotional antics on the field and sideline inspire teammates during games and amuse them afterward. The Mad Backer, as the Cowboys have taken to calling Brooking, often barks encouragement and directions during defensive huddles. He violently head butted a couple of assistant coaches in the chest while celebrating a fourth-and-1 stop against the Broncos. He sprinted down the sideline during the winning play against the Chiefs and pounced on Miles Austin in the end zone, beginning a dog pile.
"I get a little wound up," Brooking said with a crooked smile.
Brooking is just as intense during practices. In fact, Phillips was surprised when Brooking wasn't in the middle of the first training camp fight.
"Freakin' psycho," said fullback Deon Anderson, who butts heads with Brooking during practices. "He brings that passion on the other side of the ball. I know he'll never stop, so he makes me better. High motor. High energy. Great leader."
Brooking didn't come to Dallas to establish himself as an emotional leader. He'd seen veteran free agents step into the Falcons' locker room and immediately speak their minds, and he didn't like that approach. His primary goal was to earn respect at Valley Ranch.
That didn't take long. By the end of training camp, the rest of the defense was feeding off Brooking's energy. By the beginning of the regular season, Brooking felt comfortable speaking his mind as a Cowboy.
"He just came in and was real humble, real down-to-earth," nose tackle Jay Ratliff said. "The only thing he wanted was just to win, just be a team. Who can't respect that?
"If you go to any different team, you're going to have to prove yourself. He came in and didn't say anything. He just let his play talk, and everyone else just followed."
For a long time, Brooking believed he would finish his career as a Falcon. But he describes the move to Dallas as a rejuvenating experience. He's cherished the challenge of proving himself to another organization, one that he expects to be a legitimate contender.
The Falcons soon will see how well Brooking fits with the Cowboys.
"The next opponent, I'm not really sure who we play," Brooking fibbed, "but that's going to be a lot of fun."
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
It hasn't taken Keith Brooking long to become the Cowboys' emotional leader.