Curran: When it mattered, reliable Faulk was ready


Curran: When it mattered, reliable Faulk was ready

Among active NFL players, Kevin Faulk is 25th in rushing attempts, 26th in receptions, 27th in yards from scrimmage and 10th in all-purpose yards.

Hes 99th in NFL history in terms of career touches and chances are hell drop to 100th on September 9 when the Vikings Adrian Peterson gets his 18th touch in Minnesotas season opener.

Faulk hopes his NFL career isnt over but, at 36, it probably is. The Patriots roster has running backs stacked up like firewood and the unsigned Faulk is going to be hard-pressed to unseat any of them. He wont sign anywhere else.

Faulks final career numbers will paint him as a very good utility back. The punt returns, catches out of the backfield, kickoff returns and rushing attempts all stacked together makes it look like Faulk was a real nice player.

But he has been more than that. And before the Patriots fully flip to preparing for 2012, closing the book on 2011 means also closing the book on Kevin Faulk, the most successful third-down back in NFL history.

Greatest doesnt fit. Neither does most explosive or most versatile. All those things are too subjective. But when one says successful, measurables are entered into the conversation. Statistics. Championships. Years served.

And those are the things that set Faulk apart from the other electrifying players who served in similar roles.

You talk about a guy who can perform under pressure and Kevin Faulk is at the top of the list, Tom Brady told me last week. Seems to me when you measure great players its when the going gets tough. The mental toughness, the ability to persevere. Kevin worked his tail off. He was always undersized, he was always a guy that people said couldnt be (an impact) player. He had opportunities. He had opportunities taken away from him. But he never pointed the finger at anyone else. He worked harder and put himself back in a position to be effective.

There are a lot of brilliant third-down backs (multi-purpose ballhandlers might fit better but seven syllables are too many to bother with) in recent NFL history. Nobody caught the ball better than Larry Center. Nobody returned punts better than Dave Meggett, except perhaps Eric Metcalf. Darren Sproles might be one of the best players in the NFL. And nobody ever talks about Brian Mitchell. Then theres Leon Washington and Josh Cribbs, and even Faulks understudy Danny Woodhead.

What sets Faulk apart from all of those guys, though, is his longevity and his championships. Only Meggett played in close to as many games of import. And he was never the full-on offensive focal point Faulk was when the Patriots needed plays made.

I get chills thinking about Kevin and thinking about the plays hes made over the course of his career, said Brady. The moments against the best players in the biggest games."

Faulk entered the NFL in 1999, the 46th pick (18 after Andy Katzenmoyer) in Pete Carrolls final draft.

He didnt get many touches as a rookie. In Charlie Weis offense the next year, Faulk got touches but had drops (six fumbles in 2000). Many Sundays especially early in the 2000 season felt like the final Sunday for Faulk with the Patriots.

But Faulk worked extremely hard to correct the problem and went from being unreliable to the most reliable.

By his fourth season, Faulk was comfortable.

There was nobody nobody that was more clutch than Kevin Faulk, said Brady. He grew so much over the course of 02, 03, 04 and became one of the most productive players at that position in NFL history.

Looking at Faulks playoff numbers bears that out.

In the 2003 playoffs, he had 14 carries for 72 yards and eight catches for 58. He had 22 for 114 running the ball in the 2004 playoffs three catches for 38 yards as the Patriots beat the Eagles.

Faulk wouldnt take over a game as much as he would serve as the Patriots silent assassin. When the normal stuff wasnt working Corey Dillon, Troy Brown Deion Branch; Randy Moss or Wes Welker the Patriots would scheme something for Faulk because they knew his reliability. He would be where he needed to be and he could improvise and create once he got the ball.

Ross Tucker was an offensive lineman with the Patriots in 2005 and 2006. Now an analyst for SIRIUS XM-Radio, Tucker maintains that Faulk is the best third-down back ever.

It honestly seemed like, in a big playoff game or a big regular season game, when it got to third down, Id be like, Well, theyre gonna throw it to Kevin for 4 yards, hell make two guys miss and dive forward to get the first down, Tucker explained. He was ridiculously clutch. He could pass protect, he could carry the ball. He was outstanding out of the backfield.

I think the one thing I would say is, when you think of Bill Belichick, his big thing is for every player to have a role, Tucker continued. Each guy has a role and your role will be what you make it. And Im not sure you just stop at saying Kevin Faulk is the best third down back ever in league history. I think on a team of role players, Kevin was the greatest role player in Patriots history and maybe one of the greatest role players in NFL history. His role was third down back and he was the best that ever did it.

Tucker has respect for the other players who filled similar roles for their teams.

Larry Centers has ridiculous numbers of catches on several teams but its when Kevin did it, Tucker argued. Thats the big thing. Now it feels like, third-and-7, they throw it to Wes Welker and he dives for the first down. It just seemed like Kevin for years and years, was that guy. Especially in the playoffs. Especially when it mattered the most.

There were a lot of times we didnt even have backs and he was the last one standing and he took us to victory, said Vince Wilfork. Big game player. Versatile. He can run punts, kickoffs, whatever you needed him to do. Hes a team player and a helluva leader.

Faulks future will become official one way or the other in the coming weeks. League-wide, the end of the line will be a note. It is, after all, a bit of a fait accompli. But it will mark an end of an era when Faulk leaves the final Patriot that predates Bill Belichick, the touchstone of professionalism for so many dozens of teammates.

Hell truly be missed by me as a personal friend and as a teammate, said Wilfork. Hes meant a lot to this organization. At that position, hes one of the best ever.

Added Brady, I dont know whats happening with his career but I love him. I love him like a brother and there was so much trust that I developed in him because of his ability to perform under pressure.

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

Giardi: After getting schooled, Butler's got to be better

When the Patriots signed Stephon Gilmore in the offseason and then managed to keep Malcolm Butler around, the consensus was not only might this be the best 1-2 punch at cornerback the team has ever had, but maybe, just maybe, it was the best duo in the NFL this season. 

Newsflash: it hasn’t been. Not even close. 


The latest example comes from Sunday night in Denver. Gilmore returned from a three-game absence (concussion) to play well against Demaryius Thomas in that 41-16 win. The same can’t be said of Butler. He spent much of his day playing man-to-man versus Emmanuel Sanders and struggled mightily.

Butler’s issues started on the very first play. He got lost along the sidelines and surrendered a 31-yard catch. Butler initially had Sanders blanketed. The two were lined up outside the numbers along the left sideline. Based on the formation, and the alignment of safety Devin McCourty, it was pretty clear Butler was alone on an island. Sanders initially drove inside before straightening out his route. Then he cut sharply, working speedily to the flat. Butler had a good beat on the play but unwisely peeked into the backfield. That’s when Sanders turned up and found nothing but green grass.

“I would just say I’d just tip my hat to him,” said Butler. “It was a great route. He steered me in. Then he went up then went out then went back up so I thought that was it. It was a little more than I expected. You gotta learn from it and play it better next time.”

On the same drive, he was beaten again by Sanders, this time for 13 yards. The Pats defense tightened up and held Denver to a field goal but a pattern had already been established between the Patriots' 27-year-old cornerback and Sanders.

The next big play Butler coughed up came with 4:13 to play in the second quarter. Broncos QB Brock Osweiler summoned Sanders to come across the formation via motion but then sent him back as the wideout approached the tackle box. Butler overreacted, trying to jump out ahead of the motion while simultaneously looking into the backfield. It was then he realized Sanders had done an about-face. To his credit, Butler recovered and jumped on Sanders shortly after the snap of the ball, actually shoving the receivers’ right shoulder in an attempt to disrupt the pattern. 

As Sanders turned upfield, he appeared well-covered by Butler. But then another old habit that’s been hard for Butler to break appeared. He lost track of the ball once it took flight. Sanders slapped on the brakes and high-pointed the football while Butler watched, helplessly flat-footed. Chalk up another 23-yard gain.

“I would just say he underthrew it and I got pushed by,” said Butler. “I probably burst because I was expected the ball to come too. You just got to play it the best way you can. Things happen. He just made a great play. I was in good position but not good enough.”

Sanders caught one more pass on the drive, and should have had a touchdown in the second quarter, streaking past Butler toward the end zone. But Osweiler made a terrible throw, unable to even keep it in the field of play. Hence another field goal instead of a touchdown. Bullet dodged - and there were a few.

“You can’t win with three all day,” said Butler of the defense’s red-zone efficiency. “They’re very hard on us on protecting the red area and not giving up touchdowns in the red area. Bend but don’t break. That’s been the motto.”

The Patriots would break later and Sanders beating Butler was a part of it. The play coming about five minutes into the third quarter on Denver's only TD-scoring drive. The Broncos came out in trips, employing a bunch formation that had plagued the Patriots so often the first month of the season. Unlike then, the Pats handled communication perfectly and as Sanders worked toward the seam, Butler had good position and help toward the post, with safety Duron Harmon eyeballing Sanders the entire way. So did Butler do? He gave up outside leverage, with Sanders breaking hard to the flag. Butler’s footwork was a mess - he got spun around like he was auditioning for "Dancing With the Stars" - and was unable to recover until Sanders had picked up another 23 yards.

“Another good route,” said Butler. “He got me thinking inside and broke out. He’s a good player. A great receiver.”

There’s no denying Sanders’ talent, but Butler has got to be better and more consistent. He’s too often been lost in coverage or gotten caught gambling, eyeballing a big play that’s rarely come in 2017. With their issues up front, it’s the Pats secondary that’s going to have to lead the way. The corners have only occasionally played to the level expected of them. The clock is ticking. Thanksgiving is right around the corner and if you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: this is when the Patriots want to be playing their best football. About time Butler answered the call.

Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip


Brady enjoys 'unique experience' of road trip

While being away from home isn’t uncommon for the Patriots - just think about all those Super Bowl trips - Tom Brady believes each excursion takes on its own feel, its own flavor and - eventually - its own meaning.

Back in 2014, the Pats went from playing in Green Bay and losing to the Packers straight to San Diego for a week on the West Coast prior to a rousing victory over the Chargers. That week, many players said in the aftermath, helped propel the team to great heights,.  You’ll recall, that season ended in grand fashion, a triumph in Super Bowl 49 over Seattle, at the time - and maybe still - the greatest Super Bowl ever played.

“I think all these experiences are pretty unique,” Brady said Friday from Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy. “That was a very unique experience. This is different.”

Brady spoke about the number of stops the Pats have and will have to make on this trip - from Denver to Colorado Springs then on to Mexico City Saturday before a Sunday night return to Foxboro and their own beds for the first time in 10 nights.

“When you’re on the road like this, there’s less to do,” he said. “You know my family is not here, my kids aren’t here. There’s nobody telling me what I did wrong in the house. It’s just being at home and now it’s being here and trying to figure out a way to win a game.”

Brady quickly smoothed over any possible ill-will at home - why make Gisele mad? - smiling and saying “I didn’t mean that so I’ll take it back.”

Kidding aside, the 40-year old signal caller seemed pleased with the work the Patriots have put in during this long trip. A week of team-bonding can’t be a bad thing, especially for a group that seems to be hitting it’s stride both on and off the field. There’s the five wins in a row and also a locker room that has a better understanding of one another than it did during the first month of the season. But Brady is not ready to make any grand proclamations. That just wouldn’t be his style.

“I think it’s still work in progress,” he said of team chemistry. “You look at still adding a player like Marty (Bennett) last week. Things are always changing and evolving. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing well and after 8 or 9 weeks, you start to figure those things out. Now we have to work hard at those things, try to really own them, and use them going forward to try and win the most important games. We have a lot of important games coming up, starting with this one. Hopefully we can play our best football going forward.”

Brady said he’s been fired up for this game with the Raiders south of the border ever since the schedule was released all those months ago.

“I’ve never been to Mexico City,” he said. “It’s been a game you kind of look forward to. We’re playing against a really good football team in a pretty cool environment. It will be very memorable. I think everyone is excited.”