Brandon LaFell was a major part in the offense this season, giving Tom Brady another player to throw to (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
PHOENIX — When it comes to the Patriots’ receiving core, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are the first to come to mind, but when it comes to the Patriots’ offense clicking this season the player who deserves almost even more credit is Brandon LaFell.
LaFell was signed as a free agent this past offseason and had arguably the biggest catch of the season — his game-winning, 18-yard touchdown grab in the divisional round win over the Ravens.
“Brandon has been a great addition to our offense,” wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea said on Wednesday. “He’s come in and worked very hard. He’s demonstrated toughness. He’s been productive with the ball in his hands. I thin he’s a true team football player and he does things away from the play when he’s not catching the ball — for example blocking. That demonstrates team football.
“We have been very happy with him and I think the biggest thing with him that has been impressive is on a daily basis his work ethic. He truly comes to practice and works very hard and I think that is what has allowed him to get better as the year has gone on.”
The former Carolina Panther finished the regular season catching 74 passes for 953 yards along with seven touchdowns. He was able to be the dependable third target for Tom Brady that he has been lacking for years, as even though Brady has had star wideouts in Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Edelman and Gronkowski, he hasn’t had a good third option in many years.
“I think it is very important,” O’Shea said of having a third option for Brady. “The more options you can have within the offense obviously the better we are going to be overall. [LaFell] definitely has made us have a lot of confidence in him this year the way he’s played. He works hard, he does a good job of communicating with the quarter.”
Just how good was LaFell’s season? His 953 receiving yards were the most by a Patriots wide receiver not named Edelman, Gronkowski, Welker or Moss since Deion Branch in 2005. Of his 74 receptions, 50 0f them went for first downs (68 percent) and he led all Patriots receivers with 39 receptions on first down, 25 of which went for a first down. That means 64 percent of those catches moved the chains, which is even slightly ahead of Gronkowski (64 percent).
It didn’t click right away, as LaFell self-admittedly said it took awhile for him to grasp the playbook, even though he was signed on March 15. He wasn’t even targeted in the first two games of the season.
“I probably didn’t learn the full playbook probably until like Week 2,” said LaFell. “We were putting in so much stuff and I was in Carolina for four years and my last two years I didn’t even have to look at the playbook because I knew everything, but coming here I had to relook at the playbook everyday and ask guys like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson — I had to look at that playbook everyday because there was so much. It wasn’t like I had time to just sit back and look at the playbook and watch guys because they were throwing me in there. I had to learn at the fly.”
Things really started to click in Week 4, as even though the Patriots were blown out 41-17 in Kansas City, LaFell played extended time for the first time in a Patriots uniform and finished the game with six receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
“Personally, I think it was,” said LaFell of the Kansas City game being a breakout game. “That was a game where coach started rotating me with the other receivers with [Aaron] Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. They started rotating us and he just left he me out there for the whole game. I got a bunch of snaps and more targets than I had in the first three or four games total and I made a lot more plays.”
There have been many receivers that have came to New England and just haven’t been able to learn the Patriots’ system and demands of a Brady led offense. Some of those guys include Joey Galloway, Chad Ochocinco and Donald Hayes.
LaFell said the hardest part is being able to pick up with the offense is the no huddle, something Brady likes to go to a lot as a way to jump start the offense.
“The toughest part of this offense to learn I would probably say is the no huddle,” said LaFell. “When you do no huddle you usually have to know one spot, but when Tom [Brady] flips the formation you might go to the Z to the X to the F so you have to know the whole playbook not just one spot.”
The fifth-year receiver has been called one of the “toughest” players on the team by both Brady and Bill Belichick this season. O’Shea elaborated with what makes LaFell so tough.
“He demonstrates his toughness by his physical play as a blocker,” said O’Shea. “As a route runner he demonstrates toughness. I think he’s done a great job with the run after the catch. He demonstrates toughness to run through tackles and I think most importantly he’s tough minded. He deals with adversity. He knows how to deal with adverse circumstances that have come our way, which there will always be regardless of what team we are on. That is what makes him tough in my opinion.”
With the Patriots now turning their attention on the Seahawks for Super Bowl XLIX, competing for a championship is the main reason why LaFell decided to sign with New England.
‘It definitely was,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where winning was already instilled. I wanted to continue to win. My last year in Carolina, we won a lot of games and I love that feeling. I wanted to either stay in Carolina where I knew we would win again or go somewhere where I could win just as much. Coming here, you look at their resume, since 2000, they probably have won the most games in the NFL. Six Super Bowl appearances. I wanted to go somewhere where I could have the possibility to pursue those.’