(Dec. 20, 2001) -- A vote-eating virus has infected the NFL's computers. How else to explain why the Patriots' Troy Brown ranks only fifth among AFC wide receivers in fan voting for the 2002 Pro Bowl?
Not that there's anything wrong with the four receivers in front of him.
Top vote getters Marvin Harrison of Indianapolis and Rod Smith of Denver rank 1-2 in the conference in receiving yards with 1,195 (Smith) and 1,173 (Harrison). Oakland's Tim Brown and Jerry Rice -- who rank third and fourth in the voting -- also are worthy candidates, having posted solid numbers for a division championship team.
On the other hand, Brown and Rice have Rich Gannon, a veteran Pro Bowl quarterback and leading MVP candidate, not to mention the advantage of playing opposite another high-caliber receiver who can discourage double-teaming.
Troy Brown doesn't have that luxury with the Patriots, even with the recent return of Terry Glenn to the lineup. Indeed, for all the attention quarterback Tom Brady has received during New England's 9-3 playoff run, the one indispensable component in the New England offense is Brown.
Glenn has played in only three games. David Patten has been a pleasant surprise with 47 receptions, but there's no reliable tight end, and the backs are afterthoughts in the passing game.
All of which explains why the Patriots rank 18th in the NFL in passing offense.
Which should be another exhibit in the case for Brown making his first Pro Bowl. On a so-so passing team with few receiving options, he still ranks third in the AFC with 90 receptions and fourth in receiving yards with 1,095, not to mention third in punt returns with a 13-yard average.
That's impressive production for an undersized (5-10, 193 pounds) wide receiver who came to the Patriots in 1993 as an eighth-round draft choice and was released before his second season, only to be re-signed two months later.
It's also far too much production to be left off the Pro Bowl team, where fan voting counts for one-third of the total vote, with players and coaches accounting for the rest. You certainly don't have to tell Brown's coaches and teammates how valuable he is.
"He's Mr. Reliable," cornerback Ty Law says. "When it comes down to crunch time, you know he's going to be there. He should be voted to the Pro Bowl this year. It's something that's been a long time coming for him. If I was able to vote for him, he'd damn sure get my vote."
Too bad players and coaches can't vote for players on their own team.
"Troy was pretty good when I was here before," says coach Bill Belichick, who was the Patriots' assistant head coach in 1996 under Bill Parcells. "But he's gotten so much better. He has tremendous confidence in his hands and is willing to put his hands out there away from his body and catch the ball, which not all receivers will do.
"His strengths are his quickness and overall balance. He's tough to tackle, and with his leg strength he can run through people."
If Brown needs work in one area, it's self-promotion. Ask about his big punt returns and he'll tell you about the blocking. Ask about a big catch and he'll tell you about the pass.
"I've just been working hard," he says of his success this season. "I always work hard on the things I think I need to improve on. All I've ever asked for was an opportunity. I've got it now and I'm making the most of it. I don't want anybody giving me anything but an opportunity."
Apparently, Brown can't get enough opportunities to make plays. Why else would a player in his ninth NFL season, playing a position as well as he is, still be on special teams, running back punt after punt?
"I think it's just the rush," Brown says. "You've got 10 or 11 men coming down the field to cream you and it's pretty much you against them. It's exciting to be able to make somebody miss in the open field."
As exciting as a trip to Hawaii? Come February, Brown hopes to find out.