FOXBOROUGH -- If Benjamin Watson is released Saturday after five seasons with the Patriots, he sounds like a man who has made peace with his situation.
Speaking slowly and carefully in the wake of Thursday’s 38-27 preseason win over the Giants at Gillette Stadium, the veteran tight end said he’s allowed himself to think about the fact that he might not be a part of the roster when the final cuts are announced.
“Definitely. It crosses my mind every year. Something that Tedy [Bruschi] said in his press conference is that he took the mentality that every year, he had to make the team,” said Watson. “As a player, that’s kind of how you approach things because you know, on any given day, they can call your number. So every preseason I come in with the same type of mentality that I have to earn my spot on the team.”
After a rough 2008 season that had some badly dropped balls, Watson has struggled to stay on the field since the start of training camp -- he was a rare sight at padded practices throughout the month of August. Those factors, combined with the success of fellow tight end Chris Baker (who had two touchdowns in preseason action) and some added depth at tight end with Dave Thomas and Alex Smith have led some to believe Watson will be on the chopping block when the cuts are announced on Saturday.
“You understand that things happen -- and they never happen at the right time, it seems like. But they do and you just roll with it. You make the best with what you have left,” said Watson, who caught his first pass of the preseason Thursday night, a nine-yard reception.
At the start of the game, he was the only semi-regular from last season on the offensive side of the ball. And when the third-teamers stayed in the game deep into the second half, Watson remained out there.
In the end, whatever decision coach Bill Belichick makes is OK with him.
“Only [Belichick] can make that decision,” said Watson. “We work here -- they make the decisions. That’s how it goes.
“I would say I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen,” he added. “[There’s] probably a little bit of uncertainty that I kind of carry in every year. Obviously, this year is a little bit different, you know, with injuries and stuff like that. But you just wait and see what happens. Whatever works out, works out.”
Here are nine other things we learned from Thursday’s night’s preseason finale against the Giants.
The Patriots and Giants very nearly pulled off the impossible -- they managed to make a fourth preseason game almost compelling.
As preseason finales go, Thursday night’s game was pretty entertaining. As expected, New York came out with its starters on both sides of the ball, while New England (after teasing us by having everyone on the roster come out in full pads for stretching and warmups) went with the backups from the start.
As expected, the Giants dominated early behind Eli Manning (3-for-3 for 76 yards and one touchdown) and No. 2 quarterback David Carr, rolling to a 21-0 lead after one. But after New York went to their backups on both sides of the ball, the Patriots slowly chipped away at the lead, and ended up winning going away.
It was a well-earned victory for New England’s second- and third-teamers, particularly quarterback Brian Hoyer (18-for-25, 242 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions in a wire-to-wire effort), running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (147 yards from scrimmage and a 5.1 yards per carry average) and wide receiver Terrence Nunn (three catches for 64 yards). Belichick acknowledged their effort after the game.
“I was proud of the way those guys played,” Belichick said of the backups and their work in the final three quarters. “We moved the ball, made some stops on defense. We didn’t turn it over. We took care of it and we were able to make some plays when we had to -- some big plays. So it was good. Those guys showed me a lot out there that played tonight.”
BenJarvus Green-Ellis has won himself a spot on the 53-man roster.
Considered the fifth running back on the depth chart at the start of training camp -- and a bit of a longshot to make the roster -- the second-year running back out of Ole Miss had an excellent preseason, finishing with 249 yards in four games of action and averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
While many of those yards in came in garbage time in the first three preseason games, the 24-year-old consistently ran hard and did a nice job using his blockers. He accepted each assignment willingly and did not disappoint. On Thursday, he was on the field for all four quarters, and finished with 29 carries for 125 yards and three touchdowns. His performance -- combined with an excellent training camp -- will likely mean the Patriots keep five of the six backs and would be forced to cut at another spot. (Tight end? Wide receiver?)
Even though he had a strong preseason -- and has some previous experience in the system -- he isn’t allowing himself to get too comfortable just yet. After all, there are still four running backs ahead of him on the depth chart: Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk.
“I don’t think about those types of things. Those types of things are something that’s out of my control,” when asked whether or not he feels confident about his chances to make the final roster. “The only thing I can do is come in here and do my job every day and work hard and compete.”
Green-Ellis said that given his status -- he was an undrafted free agent who made his way to the practice squad last season, only to be activated to the roster when Maroney went on season-ending injured reserve in October -- there’s no way he can afford to be complacent.
“I’m not a person who will get complacent or anything like that. I’m always looking to improve and get better,” Green-Ellis said. “I always want to get better, because no one is going to have a perfect day. There’s always something you can get better at.”
New long snapper or no, Stephen Gostkowski and Chris Hanson are ready to go.
Gostkowski had a near-perfect preseason, going 7-for-7 on field goal attempts and successfully converting all 11 extra-point chances. On Thursday, he hit a 46-yarder to tie the game late in the third quarter, and put six of his seven kickoffs into the end zone with one touchback. As for Hanson, he averaged 42.9 yards per punt in the four preseason games. On Thursday, he punted five times, averaging 45.4 yards per punt and dropping two inside the New York 20-yard line.
The two are working with a new long snapper in rookie Jake Ingram, who was awarded the job this week when the Patriots cut Nathan Hodel. Gostkowski said that the comfort level between the three (Hanson will continue to be the holder on extra-points and field goals) is starting to come around nicely.
“[Jake] looks comfortable in there, and I think that is half the battle,” Gostkowski said. “Obviously, he has the talent to be out there, and we feel comfortable with him. It’s nice not having to switch back and forth between guys, and it is nice for him to get in the whole game. He’s got a long season to go, and he has to keep working hard and he has to stay on top of what he’s doing.”
Andrew Walter was not consulted about not playing in the preseason finale.
The quarterback was clearly disgruntled about not playing in Thursday night’s preseason finale. Walter, who stood on the sidelines all game with his helmet on, was clearly ready to go all night. But in the locker room after the game, he wasn’t in the mood to chat. After explaining he “doesn’t make the decision about playing,” he deferred any questions to “the guys who played.”
Asked if he feels prepared to play going forward, he was curt.
“Ah ... it’s my job to be a pro, so we’ll leave it at that,” he said before walking away.
“We had to keep him in there,” Belichick said of the decision to keep Hoyer in for the entire game. “The way the game went, we were coming back [and] we felt like he deserved a chance to keep playing and see what he could do with the outcome of the game.”
No one is quite sure what to make of Walter. The release of Kevin O’Connell appeared to set up Walter nicely for some serious playing time in the preseason finale. But after his DNP-CD on Thursday, he ends the preseason with a wholly unsatisfying line of 5-for-9 for 62 yards and no touchdowns. Right now, the backup quarterback situation is anybody’s guess.
Brian Hoyer turned in the finest preseason performance of any Patriots’ backup quarterback in recent memory.
Hoyer struggled at the start when it was the Patriots’ junior varsity offense against the Giants’ varsity defense -- he was sacked twice in the early going, once by Terrell Thomas and once by Justin Tuck -- but once the twos and threes came on the field, he acquitted himself quite well. He made sound decisions, only took two negative plays (the two sacks), did not turn the ball over and led the team back from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit. In the end, he finished 18-for-25 for 242 yards.
When stacked up against the preseason numbers posted by the likes of Matt Cassel, Rohan Davey and Damon Huard over the last few years, it’s pretty impressive. It might not be enough to win him a spot on the active roster (the Patriots could still try and get him through to the practice squad if the roster numbers call for it), but it was a solid effort nonetheless.
While the film will be dissected thoroughly by the Patriots’ coaching staff, the thing that will stick out the most in his favor is his accuracy. The New England coaching staff preaches accuracy above all else in its quarterbacking play, and the 18-for-25 will be the biggest point in his favor.
He didn’t talk after the game, but his teammates had plenty to say about his work.
“I thought it was really good,” Watson said of Hoyer’s effort. “Obviously, there are going to be some things that he could do better, but I thought for being able to play the whole game and to rally the team and to come back and get a win, I thought that was really good.”
Matthew Slater may have saved the Patriots’ coaching staff from making some tough decisions.
Slater injured himself in the first half on a kick return, slipping and falling and appearing to hurt his left arm badly. If the injury was as bad as it looked, there’s the very real chance the safety/return man will be placed on injured reserve.
That would open up a roster spot for someone like Brandon McGowan, a defensive back who was considered to be on the bubble, but played well in the preseason finale, picking off an Andre Woodson pass and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter for New England’s first score of the night.
It wasn’t the first time in the preseason McGowan showed a knack for the big play -- earlier in the preseason, McGowan delivered a nice hit against the Bengals that forced a fumble.
“He’s got a lot of things going for him -- athletically, competitively,” Belichick said of McGowan, who played the last four seasons for Chicago. “We were happy to bring him onto the team, and I think he’s done a good job in all the areas we’ve asked him to work in, and he’s been very … he’s a very versatile guy.”
Patrick Chung is pretty rough on himself.
When the Giants had a reasonable facsimile of their starting offense in the game early on, the rookie safety was beaten pretty badly. New York wide receiver Sinorice Moss beat him on the first score of the night, a 23-yard touchdown pass. Later in the first quarter, he was also in the neighborhood when David Carr found Moss on a 12-yard scoring strike.
After getting chewed out on the sidelines by Patriots’ defensive coordinator Dean Pees, he and the rest of the young defense played well the rest of the way. He ended with a team-high nine tackles and a pass defensed.
“I’ve got a lot to work on -- got a lot to work on. [I am] just working on everything,” said Chung, who was moved around the field Thursday night. “I’ve got to better my skills to help the team. That’s all I’m worried about.”
The Patriots were impressed with the effort displayed by Terrence Nunn, but the biggest mark in his favor didn’t show up in the box score.
As previously stated, the wide receiver out of Nebraska had an impressive night, and certainly did everything in his power to try and win a roster spot with three nice catches. He also returned three kicks for 78 total yards. On one of those returns, late in the second quarter, he did an impressive job of finding a lane and was able to clear some serious yardage down the New England sideline, taking the ball all the way down to the Giants’ 48-yard line, a 49-yard return.
On the return, he delivered a nasty stiff-arm to New York kicker Lawrence Tynes, but Tynes eventually pushed him out of bounds. But the kicker wasn’t through -- he kept pursuing Nunn. Tynes followed him out of bounds, grabbed Nunn’s shirt and flung him to the ground. Nunn popped back up looking like he was going to retaliate … but he kept his head and clapped his hands together. Tynes was assessed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, putting the Patriots at the New York 33. Nunn’s cooler head gave New England optimal field position.
“He’s just worked hard and gotten better and better,” Belichick said of Nunn, who ended the preseason with eight catches -- tied for second-best on the team -- and 133 receiving yards. “He’s improved his game on a lot of the little things and some of those things have showed up as bigger things. … When he’s gotten a chance to play, he’s made some positive plays.”
The Patriots’ coaching staff is about to start its toughest stretch of the year.
New England has to cut to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Saturday. There were several players Thursday night who helped themselves with their performances, including Green-Ellis and Nunn. There were others on the bubble who might have played their final game in a Patriots’ uniform.
In the end, telling someone they’re through is never easy.
“Getting in there pretty close and making the decisions is tough,” Belichick said. “Then, the actual talking to players and telling them what the decision is when it doesn’t go the way they want it to go, that’s hard, too.
“We all know that’s the nature of the business,” he added. “Somebody plays and somebody gets a release. So that’s the National Football League. It’s not like college when everybody gets a letter sweater. It’s a little bit different here, but that’s the way it is. It’s tough, but that’s the NFL.”