"Fear the power of my pre-snap signals!"
Lofa Tatupu isn't a physically gifted athlete. We knew this the day he was drafted, and we know this today. He was, for a couple of years, able to make up for this deficiency with gifted game instincts, an astute eye for the ball-carrier, and a preternatural ability to sniff out plays at the line of scrimmage. From '05-'08, he has honed this ability of "small size, big heart" to impressive superficial numbers, a Pro Bowl spot or two, fan adoration, and a handsome contract extension.
Then he put on weight. Then he got hurt and missed most of '09..
Then his physical deficiencies caught up to him.
The Lofa Tatupu I saw in 2010 was hardly the same one I saw in 2005. He was bigger, yet less imposing. His speed, already questionable even in his glory days, vanished. His famed pre-snap adjustments, which earned him the title of "Defensive QB", seemed to have little effect as the defense collapsed around him. Perhaps the lowest point was getting outrun by Jay "Please Concuss Me So I Can Get Martz Fired" Cutler for a critical first-down in the Divisional Round.
Even the superficial stats faded. He recorded 58 solo tackles, good for 5th on the team. He also contributed 30 "assist" tackles, and let's not get into how ridiculously arbitrary those stats are and how nuanced football defense really is. If only I had the tape access John Morgan did.
One pick, one forced fumble, and lots of futility watching men more physically gifted than him run circles around him.
So after all that depressing crap, is Lofa Tatupu still worth keeping around? I hesitantly answer yes.
As nebulous as the "intangibles" and "Defensive QB" stuff sounds, football is an incredibly difficult sport to analyze even on basic levels like "did the RB pick up the blitz" and "did the safety get fooled by the pump fake". So much work is to be done on those levels, that I feel nowhere near comfortable asserting that Tatupu's signal-calling leadership efforts are meaningless. If the teammates like him, and the coaches like him, and if they all feel like he's contributing to the team, then who am I to argue?
From a layman's view, Tatupu has clearly declined. What little physical skill he's had is quickly disappearing, and the position absolutely must be addressed in the future. But for now, for the year 2011 (assuming we get a 2011 season, but that's for another article), Lofa Tatupu is our man to lead the charge at Middle Linebacker. Even if the Outside Linebackers outrun him in that charge.