SAN ANTONIO – Bradie James and Keith Brooking got used to the routine of having different players beside them on the field until the inside linebackers came together in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys' 3-4 defense.
The tandem coach Wade Phillips likes to refer to as the "Killer Bs" was an immediate success. Now they get a chance to do it again.
In their second camp together with the Cowboys, there is no need for the kind of feeling-out process James and Brooking went through a year ago when they were teammates for the first time. Neither of them is having to learn somebody new for a change.
"With him being around, I know what I'm going to get," James said. "We were just feeling each other out, but now I know, and that only makes us better. He's fast and I'm the bruiser. ... Our rapport is good."
Before Brooking got to Dallas last year, James had teamed with at least five other inside linebackers while starting all 64 games in the first four seasons after the Cowboys changed their defensive alignment.
During his eight consecutive seasons starting every game in Atlanta's mostly 4-3 defense before that, Brooking said "there was a lot of turnover for me .... different guys coming in each and every year playing different positions."
There is a lot of continuity in the Cowboys defense, which allowed the fewest points in the NFC a year ago and ended the regular season with the first consecutive shutouts in the team's 50-year history. The only change in the starting lineup is at safety with Alan Ball replacing Ken Hamlin, who was released during the offseason.
James and Brooking were the top two tacklers for the NFC East champions.
"It's pretty awesome to watch," said Phillips, also the team's defensive coordinator. "They really are on the same page. They really have a feel for each other, kind of know where the other guy is going to be."
James has led the team in tackles five consecutive seasons since replacing departed Dexter Coakley in the lineup in 2005, when former coach Bill Parcells converted Dallas to 3-4 sets.
While James started every game in that span, Brooking followed in the line of Dat Nguyen, Scott Shanle, Ryan Fowler, Akin Ayodele and Zach Thomas playing beside him. Only Ayodele started at inside linebacker with James more than one season — until now.
"It's great to have that continuity there, that dependability," Brooking said. "That feeling when we line up beside one another, you know without a doubt you can count on him and hopefully he has that same comfort he can count on me. That goes for the whole defense."
Brooking was the last remaining player from Atlanta's only Super Bowl team in 1998, his rookie season, and had started every game while leading the Falcons in tackles eight consecutive seasons. Yet, the five-time Pro Bowler couldn't come to terms on a new deal since the Falcons were offering less money and no guarantees of remaining the starter.
So he reunited with Phillips, the defensive coordinator in Atlanta for his best two seasons, by signing a three-year deal with the Cowboys before last season.
"I knew Keith was still a good player," Phillips said. "I didn't expect Keith to be as big a leader as he is already. I did in Atlanta because he was the guy and had been there, but here that was nice to see."
When the Cowboys huddle together before games, Brooking is in the middle leading with the fiery motivation.
"I've been around other linebackers, every year seems like we had a new one. I didn't know how the ego would be, guys would say the right things in front of the cameras but it'd be different when we get in the locker room," James said.
He found out that wasn't the case with Brooking.
The 34-year-old Brooking last season started all but one game, when the Cowboys opened against Philadelphia in nickel package. Brooking still had 13 tackles in that game.
After his left knee started bothering him during some offseason conditioning, Brooking had arthroscopic surgery. He missed a month of voluntary workouts and Phillips has limited him to one practice a day during camp, though Brooking insists everything is all right — and it certainly looks like it is when he is on the field.
Brooking was back for the afternoon session Thursday after not participating in the morning workout without pads. It was the last set of two-a-days in the Alamodome, where the Cowboys have a walkthrough Friday before their preseason opener in Canton, Ohio.
"Yeah, we give him a hard time all of the time because he only practices one time," said James, who is going into his eighth NFL season is five years behind Brooking. "I think I'm supposed to really pay attention to that. If I'm fortunate enough to play that long, I need to be doing the same things he's doing."