After spending the second half of the 2004 season as mostly a defensive back and punt returner, Patriots veteran wide receiver Troy Brown returned to what had become his customary role as New England's No. 3 wide out on opening night and looked like he'd never left.
While his numbers as a receiver dwindled over the end of last season, and he finished the year with just 17 catches for 184 yards and one score, Brown's performance against Oakland resembled the Troy Brown of old, serving notice that the aging wonder is still a contributor on offense for the two-time defending Super Bowl champs.
In hauling in six passes for 51 yards against the Raiders, Brown caught more passes than he had since Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina. The soft hands, the precise route running, the consistency – all the characteristics that made Brown a Pro Bowler in 2001 after a 101-catch campaign were once again on display for Patriots Nation. After some doubt this offseason as to whether Brown would even be back in New England, Brown is back and in some ways looking as good as ever.
"I think that Troy has had a really consistent camp and consistent preseason," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "He's really looked good since the first day of training camp in terms of his quickness, his route running ability, his timing with the different quarterbacks, especially Tom [Brady], but really all of them. He just had a really good camp. He's played well. He's been open. He's caught the ball. He's made some yards after the catch on a consistent basis. It's not one game or one practice or one play, but it's just been consistent and that's what a lot of us have seen for a long time. That's really what you're looking for out of any player, is somebody that can be dependable, can be consistent and can do things right on a basis that you can really count on. He showed that again in the last game, but it's been like that the entire camp. I think he's had a really good preseason."
Besides he renewed focus on offense, Brown has also been as healthy as ever in the early going in 2005, something that Belichick believes has played a big role in the veteran's strong start.
"In the past, from time to time, he's been slowed down or missed some time and that affects any player's performance and their timing and their consistency," Belichick said. "That just hasn't been the case for him. He's been out there and been very dependable and has been on a steady, again, improvement is a relative term, I'm not saying he's improved, even though he's been in the league a long time, but from the first day you walk out on the field, after 40 or 50 practices, you should improve regardless of how long you've been doing it and that's certainly been the case for him."
And while Belichick would never close the door on Brown's career as a defensive back in a Patriots uniform, it isn't something that is on the horizon in 2005. A much deeper secondary should allow the wide out to remain focused on his offensive duties.
"It's been very, very limited this year compared to last year," Belichick said of Brown's defensive practice reps. "Last year we only had eight defensive backs. This year, we have a little more than that. But, he's a done it in the past and if we needed him to do it again, and we called on him, I'm sure he would do it. Whether it is special teams, offense, defense, whatever it is. He is a versatile player."
While the defensive line in Carolina gets most of the attention, thanks in large part to the imposing presence of guys like Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins, the Patriots know from experience that handling Panthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan can be just as important.
According to Panthers' coaching statistics, Morgan had a career high 25 tackles in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Patriots (although the official game book from Houston lists a "measly" game-high 18 tackles).
So for New England offensive linemen it can be a pick-poison-scenario, focus on the front four and let Morgan beat you, or go after Morgan leaving less attention on the dominating figures up front.
"That's a problem," Belichick said of getting to and blocking Morgan. "It's a problem to leave the down guys to go Morgan. It's a problem even if you get to Morgan and get him blocked. He does a good job of slipping blockers and beating blockers. He's very instinctive. A lot of times, he kind of has a step on those linemen in terms of getting to the hole where the ball is trying to enter the defense and they're just late getting there and he reads the plays. He's very quick, but more importantly, I think he's very instinctive and he gets a good jump on a lot of plays."
Morgan made his first Pro Bowl last season, earning the start in Hawaii after the former University of Miami star recorded a career-high 109 tackles in the 2004 regular season.
Pregame notes and numbersBelichick and quarterback Tom Brady enter Sunday's game in Charlotte looking for their 50th win together. The duo's 49-14 record for a .778 winning percentage is the best for any quarterback/coach pair since 1970. … Despite his two interceptions in last week's loss to the Saints, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme has been on an impressive roll in his last nine games dating back to last season, posting a passer rating of 98.6 (169-of-279 for 2,246 yards) with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. … Including postseason action, Brady has two or more touchdowns in five of his last six games against NFC opponents. … After just one week New England ranks 8th in the NFL total offense and 19th in total defense, while Carolina ranks 11th and 8th respectively. … Carolina has 11 players in its 2005 starting lineups that also started in Super Bowl XXXVIII against New England. … Despite a reputation as a run-first offense, the Panthers have the fifth most 20-plus yard pass plays in the NFL over the last three seasons with 157. From 2002-04 only St. Louis (187), Minnesota (166), Indianapolis (165) and Kansas City (162) had more pass plays of 20 or more yards than the Panthers. … Playing wide receiver on the practice squad appears to be taking quite a toll on Bam Childress and P.K. Sam. Both players were asleep on the locker room floor in front of their locker stalls during Friday's open media period at Gillette Stadium. … Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork has a creative way of keeping his shoulder pads funk free and smelling fresh. Wilfork was observed Friday morning spraying the inside of his pads with Febreze just before heading out to practice. … Neither the Patriots nor the Panthers reported any changes to the injury report on Friday.