Chase Blackburn stayed the same through odd career -- a leader
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"It wasn't like I had an epiphany."
Chase Blackburn has been standing at his locker, trying to answer questions about what changed in his months away from the Giants after the 2010 season, when the veteran special-teams leader and occasional linebacker surprisingly was not offered a contract for the 2011 season.
His old team sifted through middle linebacker after middle linebacker and Blackburn went through workout after workout with other teams but came away empty-handed each time. And everyone knows what happened when the Giants finally turned back to their old hand before a Week 12 visit by the Packers last season.
Blackburn, straight from his Ohio home and a potential new career as a math teacher, picked off Aaron Rodgers in his first game of any kind in nearly a year. He picked off Tom Brady to help earn his second Super Bowl ring.
And get this: With his first real opportunity to be a starter from training camp in the Giants' defense, he's been as much a key to that unit's play this season as any of its better-known members.
He forced his fourth fumble of the year against the Redskins on Monday night. He has an interception and a career-best three sacks this year, so his numbers are more than respectable. Even beyond the numbers, he's the one who calls out the opposing sets.
"I think you saw when he went out of the game against Washington for a series, we weren't as smooth, we weren't as in sync," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "He keeps everybody in sync."
It's not that commonplace for a 29-year-old linebacker, one with seven-plus seasons already in the NFL, to suddenly emerge as a leader. Blackburn can't name a single thing he did differently from the time in the summer of 2011 that he learned he wouldn't be offered a contract to that first week of December when he came back.
"Same workouts, running the same, lifting the same, study the same, had the same notes from when I was here," he said. "Just maybe kinda figured when I came back, just kind of let loose. It was like I had nothing to lose."
Blackburn was a special-teams dynamo in 2005 as an undrafted rookie out of Akron just because of that letting loose, though. He did enough in camp to earn a roster spot that year, then enough to get noticed on special teams and enough to get dropped into the starting lineup in the second-to-last game of that season.
He showed some of the skills he has shown this season, picking off Mark Brunell and taking it back 31 yards for his only career touchdown. Soon after that play, though, he suffered a neck injury that ended his season.
Blackburn returned in 2006 and was a mainstay on kick and punt coverage, with only occasional opportunities to spell Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker.
When Pierce retired after the 2009 season, the Giants plugged in Jonathan Goff as their new middle linebacker, but Goff tore an ACL in a practice before last season. Even then, with Blackburn at home awaiting a call, the Giants turned to Greg Jones, then Mark Herzlich, and sometimes went with three safeties and two linebackers.
Nothing worked well enough. Desperate, the Giants turned to Blackburn to give him a role they never thought he could fill full-time.
"Sometimes you just need that opportunity," linebacker Michael Boley said. "That's all it is -- you get your shot and you make the most of it."
Even after the pick of Rodgers and the pick of Brady on the biggest stage of all, Blackburn got no assurances from the Giants last February. "I was worried it was going to be just like the summer before," he said.
General manager Jerry Reese and coach Tom Coughlin had to choose between Blackburn and Goff, and they chose Blackburn. Goff tore his ACL again in Redskins camp and Blackburn has grown into his spot perfectly, blending his ability to identify offensive sets on video -- something he's always been able to do -- with a newfound commanding presence on the field.
"He was the same person in the classroom, very knowledgeable about what we were doing and how we were doing it," Fewell said. "He was still verbal, but he didn't always show his verbal skills because he never ran that much with the first team.
"The difference is, now he has the opportunity to command the huddle and command the defense. You hear that and you see that and people feel very comfortable with him making the command and giving the call. He's really just kind of stepped forward."
That may be tough to hear, that after all these years of striving to be a regular, Blackburn has become a key cog without changing a thing.
"I'm the same person," he said, still trying to put a finger on what it is that has changed. "I don't know, man. I guess you just try to prove yourself every year. Can't worry about the rest of it."