New England coach Bill Belichick has redefined the term “plug and play” – applying the concept to flesh-and-blood players with the same detached irony that your office IT department treats its leased desktop computers.
Pull one out, plug in another, and the machine keeps humming along – his sales-winning PowerPoint presentation of pigskin just as effective on the new desktop as it was on the old.
We’re not sure what’s more impressive: Belichick’s ability to push all the right personnel buttons, or the ability of unheralded, unknown players to rise to the occasion and consistently deliver in game after game, year after year, and at times when you least expect it.
The latest example, of course, was the legendary Matt Cassel/BenJarvus Green-Ellis tandem that led the Patriots to a nearly flawless 20-10 win over the (entering the game) division-lead-sharing Bills last week.
The last time Cassel started a football game before September was when his Chatsworth High squad battled Palisades in the 1999 Los Angeles invitational playoffs. If you were there that day, you would have given Palisades QB David Koral the best shot at NFL success. After all, Koral threw for 424 yards and four TDs to lead Palisades to a 49-42 win over Cassel and his outclassed Chatsworth squad. Cassel was unimpressive, completing 3 of 11 passes for 46 yards.
Naturally, given his history and experience, Cassel was well prepared to take the wheel of a marquee pro football franchise and calmly steer it to a 6-3 record and into the maelstrom of an NFL playoff race.
Sunday against Buffalo, Cassel, in his eighth start since that day against Palisades nearly a decade ago, completed 23 of 34 for 234 yards and zero TDs, but also with zero picks.
As fans of turnover-machine Brett Favre can attest, the zero in the INT column is always huge, for Cassel and for every other QB: the Patriots are 4-0 when Cassel doesn’t throw a pick.
Green-Ellis, meanwhile, is an undrafted rookie with as many last names as NFL starts (that would be two, for those of you keeping score at home).
Yet Sunday against Buffalo, Green-Ellis coolly ripped off 105 yards on 26 carries against a Buffalo defense that entered the contest as one of the league’s 10 best against the run (allowing 3.77 YPA).
But that’s only part of the story: With the game and the division lead on the line, Belichick, naturally, turned to this seasoned NFL vet to put the game away – as if Green-Ellis was Emmitt Smith, as if this was Dallas, and as if this was 1992.
During New England’s franchise-record-tying 19-play drive in the fourth quarter, Green-Ellis lugged the rock eight times for 29 yards, including a 1-yard TD that gave the Patriots an insurmountable 20-3 lead in the final minutes.
We might have been surprised by the performance. But Belichick’s theater act of the absurd and the anonymous has played a few times in this town before. Remember these guys?
RB Mike Cloud – The former Boston College star (via Portsmouth, R.I.) spent four utterly unproductive years with the Chiefs (1999-2002), scoring four TDs over those four seasons, with a single-game high of 58 yards. He showed up in Foxboro one day to sip a cup of coffee with the 2003 Patriots and helped the team win two of the most pivotal games in their Super Bowl season.
In Cloud’s first appearance in a Patriots uniform, he rushed for a career-high 73 yards (on just seven carries) and two critical TDs in a surprising 38-30 win over Tennessee that launched the team’s record 21-game win streak. Later that year, in a dynasty-defining 38-34 win at Indy, Cloud added two more clutch TDs.
He ended his seven-year NFL career with a total of 12 TDs.
DB Antwan Harris – Draft junkies might remember Harris. After all, he was nabbed by the Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft – 12 picks ahead of somebody named “Tom Brady.” Their careers have followed slightly different paths.
Brady is an immortal gridiron god. Harris started just two games in six years in the NFL (five with the Patriots).
But Harris is responsible for one of the signature touchdowns in New England franchise history. In the 2001 AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh, Harris received a Troy Brown lateral following a blocked field goal and returned it 49 yards for what proved to be the decisive score in a shocking 24-17 win over the heavily-favored Steelers.
He started just one game afterward in a career that fizzled out with Cleveland in 2005.
RB J.R. Redmond – It’s easy to forget this running back out of Arizona State. He started just six games in a six-year NFL career and caught a total of 35 passes in three seasons with the Patriots.
Naturally, Redmond came up huge in the most critical moments in franchise history. In overtime of the 2001 Snow Bowl playoff game against Oakland, the little-used Redmond caught three passes for 24 yards to help set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal.
Somewhat miraculously, he repeated the effort two weeks later, in a long-forgotten game the NFL stubbornly insists on calling “Super Bowl XXXVI.”
With the Patriots locked in a 17-17 battle and backed up at their own 17 yard line with under two minutes to play, Tom Brady connected with Redmond on three straight passes – again for 24 yards – and again to set up a game-winning field goal.
Redmond caught just two more passes in a Patriots uniform.
WR Dedric Ward – The wide receiver was drafted by the Jets out of Northern Iowa (Kurt Warner’s alma mater) and defined the term non-impact player, with 11 TD catches in six NFL seasons.
He showed up in a Patriots uniform one day – in the biggest game of the 2003 season – and, naturally, played a huge role in a huge victory.
In the first of his three short games with New England, Ward caught a 31-yard TD pass from Tom Brady that gave the Patriots a seemingly insurmountable 17-0 lead over the Colts. It was a critical score in a game that came down to a last-second goal line stand as the Patriots won, 38-34, and essentially secured homefield advantage in the playoffs.
Ward caught two other passes over the next two weeks, and never stepped on the field in a New England uniform again.
The list goes on an on, from shutdown defenses pieced together with the likes of Hank Poteat, Earthwind Moreland and wide receiver Troy Brown, to a castoff linebacker like Mike Vrabel morphing into a deadly scoring threat in the biggest games of the year, to unknown QBs Brady and Cassel who took over for Pro Bowlers while barely missing a beat.
Not sure who the next unexpected star will be, but keep your eye out Thursday night on linebacker Gary Guyton. He’s an unproven rookie making his first NFL start.
In Belichick’s plug-and-play system, he sounds like a guy poised to make a big impact.
Kerry J. Byrne is the publisher of ColdHardFootballFacts.com. His self-congratulatory column will appear here each Wednesday during football season. Send fawning praise, death threats or pictures of your 19-year-old sister to email@example.com.