FOXBORO, MA - When the New England Patriots decided not to re-sign tight end Ben Coates, they knew they were losing a big chunk of their offense.
Coates was a central figure in his nine years on the team, having become one of Drew Bledsoe's favorite targets. He set the record for most receptions by a tight end in a single season with 96 in 1994 en route to being named to the Pro Bowl.
The Patriots knew that whoever they signed to play tight end would be under heavy scrutiny by the fans and players alike. They would have to bring in someone who knew what it was like to deal with the pressure of replacing an All-Pro tight end.
Eric Bjornson knows a little something about trying to replace a legend. In 1995, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth round. The Cowboys drafted him with an eye toward bringing Bjornson along slowly and having him take over for All-Pro Jay Novacek when Novacek retired.
That decision came a lot sooner than expected though, as a back injury forced to retire after the 1995 season. In just his second year, Bjornson was starting for the defending Super Bowl champions.
"It was a very, very, very difficult situation," said Bjornson. "I think you just have to go out and play you're game. I think the thing about that was I resembled Novacek a little more. I'm a taller, skinny guy. I kind of had a similiar background in terms of high school and college, playing a little quarterback. The comparisons started from day one, and that became tough, because you're never going to live up to that."
Bjornson is applying what he learned in Dallas to try and make sure it doesn't happen in New England.
"I think having gone through that experience prepared me for this," said Bjornson. "I'm just trying to go out and play my game and be the best that I can be. That's all I can really do."
The decision to come to New England was a relatively easy one for Bjornson.
"They showed the most interest," said Bjornson. "They showed the most excitement about my being involved, and really, that's what you want to hear, that we really want you here, and that was the bottom line. At the end of the day they were really the most interested, and I thought, with their history of going to the tight end, and with situation being what it was, I thought it was a good opportunity, and I'm really glad to be here."
In the preseason, Bjornson was hardly involved in the offense, raising concerns among Patriots Nation that there was an overall lack of production at tight end.
"I think in the preseason I was just trying to be patient," said Bjornson. "We didn't really want to show a lot." The early returns from the regular season have been good though, as Bjornson
had six receptions for 39 yards and a touchdown in a 20-19 loss to the New York Jets in Week 2.
"I think anybody would've traded anything for a win," said Bjornson. "It was exciting because it looked like we were going to win. It's just so frustrating to come out with a loss." The fact that there was production at the tight end position was certainly a silver lining in the loss.
"I think that Drew's definitely the kind of quarterback that once he kind of starts hitting you a couple of times, he'll keep coming back to you," said Bjornson. "We had a couple of good weeks of practice. This week we seemed to be getting on the same page more and more, and that's such a big part of it. Some guys get on the same page really quick. We've been getting better every week, so hopefully that will continue to improve."
As the team heads home to host Minnesota on Sunday, Bjornson believes he and his teammates can turn things around.
"I feel like we're better than 0-2 right now, and I really believe that," said Bjornson. "All of us just have to stick together. The fans are very supportive. "I know I hated coming up here to play, because it's a tough place to play on the road. It's fun to be on the other side of that. We'll be back home (against Minnesota) and hopefully we'll take advantage of that."