FIND­ING THE COM­FORT ZONE

The Tribune (SLO) - - Front Page - BY EDDIE PELLS

If ex­pe­ri­ence mat­ters, the edge in Sun­day’s Su­per Bowl is with the team that has Tom Brady.

AT­LANTA

It may seem as though Aqib Talib says “good­bye” as often as the flight at­ten­dant stand­ing at the front of the plane. And yet, he keeps resur­fac­ing on good teams – and at the Su­per Bowl.

The col­or­ful corner­back brought his neck­laces, his per­son­al­ity and, yes, even de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Wade Phillips back to the big game – this time with the Los An­ge­les Rams.

This trip comes three years af­ter the 32-year-old won it all with the Den­ver Bron­cos, which is where he landed af­ter com­ing oh-so close to mak­ing the ti­tle game dur­ing his brief stay in New Eng­land.

“You kind of know, in this busi­ness, you fall in love with or­ga­ni­za­tions just like that, and then, you can be gone just like that,” Talib said.

Even in a world of ever-in­creas­ing ros­ter turnover, it feels un­usual to see a player who has en­joyed this much suc­cess change uni­forms so often. On his fourth team in the past seven sea­sons, Talib has been voted to the Pro Bowl five times and named once each to the AP All-Pro first and sec­ond teams. All those honors have come later in his ca­reer – since he left Tampa Bay, the team that used the 20th pick to draft him in 2008.

But there have been prob­lems along the way.

The Bucs dealt him to New Eng­land for a fourth-round pick in 2012, only weeks af­ter the NFL sus­pended him for us­ing the banned sub­stance, Ad­der­all. That was the last in a num­ber of in­ci­dents in Tampa – a fist­fight with a team­mate; ac­cu­sa­tions of beat­ing up a taxi driver; charges, later dropped, of shoot­ing a gun at his sis­ter’s boyfriend.

He showed lit­tle in­ter­est in talk­ing about any of it this week: “That old, bro.” Asked about his lead­er­ship skills, which have been praised re­peat­edly, both this week and dur­ing his sea­son with the Rams, Talib said noth­ing much has changed over the years.

“I don’t re­ally know about what skill. I just go be my­self,” he said. “My­self was the same eight years ago, 10 years ago, in col­lege … in high school.”

Though it wasn’t pretty on his way out of Tampa, the trade to New Eng­land sparked the blos­som­ing of his ca­reer.

“Prob­a­bly more pro­fes­sional, more alarms set in the morn­ing,” Talib said, when asked what spend­ing a year-plus with the Pa­tri­ots meant to his ca­reer. “Never late. Zero tardies. You learn that stuff go­ing through

New Eng­land.”

In a bizarro-world turn of events, Talib’s last game with the Pa­tri­ots ended when Den­ver’s diminu­tive re­ceiver Wes Welker, of all people, knocked him out of the game while throw­ing a vi­cious block as Talib came across the mid­dle in the 2014 AFC ti­tle game. Den­ver won 26-16.

And then, only a few months later, and af­ter hav­ing been hum­bled in the Su­per Bowl by Seat­tle, the Bron­cos signed Talib to a six-year, $57 mil­lion con­tract that made him le­git­i­mately rich for the first time.

Talib spent four of those six sea­sons in Den­ver, but there were is­sues there, too.

He got sus­pended twice – once for pok­ing the eye of a Colts tight end, then again in the af­ter­math of a rather com­i­cal ex­change in which he tore the chain off the neck of his neme­sis, re­ceiver Michael Crab­tree, lead­ing to a full-on brawl be­tween the two the next sea­son.

More se­ri­ously, Talib ac­ci­den­tally shot him­self in the leg in a night­club in­ci­dent in Dal­las dur­ing the 2016 off­sea­son.

As his ten­ure wore down in Den­ver, the Bron­cos’ “No Fly Zone” de­fense sunk quickly from its heights of win­ning the Su­per Bowl in the 2015 sea­son.

The Bron­cos, in need of a new quar­ter­back and with high-paid cor­ner­backs stack­ing up on the ros­ter, were in the mar­ket to deal Talib last off­sea­son. Talib wanted a re­union with Belichick in New Eng­land or with Phillips, who had gone from Den­ver to LA; the Bron­cos traded him out of the con­fer­ence.

No of­fense taken, Talib in­sisted.

“It’s our busi­ness,” he said. “They had three corners mak­ing big money, they needed a quar­ter­back. Some­thing’s gotta give. I ain’t mad, though. John (El­way) threw the oop, I dunked it.”

And wound up in LA, which has brought him back to the Su­per Bowl.

The week, and the sea­son, has been a love­fest be­tween the un­like­li­est of re­united cou­ples: Talib and the 71-year-old Phillips.

“He’s such a big per­son­al­ity guy that ev­ery­body likes him,” Phillips said. “And he’s a leader also. Coach­ing the de­fense, and the leader of the de­fense, you con­nect with a guy like that any­way.”

Along with Marcus Peters, who the Rams also ac­quired in a trade this off­sea­son, LA is one of the few teams in the league with a pair of All-Pro cor­ner­backs.

The matchups be­tween the LA corners against Pa­tri­ots pass catch­ers Rob Gronkowski, Ju­lian Edel­man and Chris Hogan fig­ure to go a long way to­ward de­cid­ing if Talib walks away Sun­day with his sec­ond ring in four sea­sons.

Aqib Talib

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