Mere statistics don't reflect Faulk's true value
Kevin Faulk, New England's Mr. Reliable, is among a group of lesser-known contributors who could have a significant impact in the divisional playoffs, writes Len Pasquarelli.
The second-round draft choice has lined up as a running back, as a wide receiver and as a kick returner. Faulk has led New England once in rushing yards, twice in total yards from scrimmage, twice in punt-return average and four times in average kickoff-return yards.
But mostly what has kept the former LSU star around long enough to win three Super Bowl rings, and also to be a part of the Patriots' pursuit of perfection this season, is that he has always possessed the attributes that coach Bill Belichick most embraces.
Leadership, selflessness and total understanding of one's role.
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Indeed, on a New England roster largely comprised of the kind of players that Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli most covet, guys willing to subjugate individual goals for the betterment of the common good, Faulk is one of the veterans who truly epitomize just what the Patriots are all about.
His numbers pale in comparison to the other Faulk who played running back in the league until two years ago, former Indianapolis and St. Louis star Marshall Faulk (who will someday have a niche in the Hall of Fame). But just like the guy with whom he shares a surname, Kevin Faulk does a little bit of everything, and does it all pretty well.
So well that his teammates this season voted him an offensive captain. He will never be a most valuable player, but Faulk is certainly a much valued player in the NFL's best organization, and the high regard with which he is held is obvious.
Faulk, 31, has never rushed for more than 700 yards in a season. It's been four years since he logged more than 100 rushing attempts in a year, and over the past four campaigns he has averaged only 48.0 carries. His 47 receptions in 2007 were his most since 2003. And for his career, he has started just 32 contests. His modest individual contributions aside, Faulk remains critical to the Patriots' effort.
"If you play for this team," Faulk noted following New England's comeback victory over the New York Giants in the regular-season finale, "you better be ready to do everything and anything. It's how we're built. From a pure [ego] standpoint, sure, everyone wants to be the star, right? But they've created an atmosphere here where everyone is treated as equals. The grass might be greener somewhere else, I don't know. Maybe on another team, with another organization over the years, I would have done more [individually]. But here, everyone has a part and everyone is expected to do his part, and I like that."
The 38-35 victory at Giants Stadium that allowed the Patriots to conclude the regular season 16-0 offered a perfect example of Faulk's importance. Although he carried just twice for minus-2 yards, Faulk caught eight passes for 64 yards and returned a kickoff for 27 yards. Of his eight receptions, four were for first downs and three came in third-down situations. The most notable was a 13-yard catch on a third-and-11 play from the New York 36-yard line. Five plays later, tailback Laurence Maroney blasted 5 yards for the winning score.
"He's been making big plays like that his entire career here," said Patriots wide receiver and fellow elder statesman Troy Brown. "Kevin is always just below the radar screen, OK? But when you need him, the man is a lot more than just a blip. The guy is a pro's pro. He knows how to win. He's been in big games and delivered. Every team, especially at this time of the year, needs guys like Kevin around."
Fortunately, each of the seven other teams still involved in the Super Bowl XLII tournament has a player or players who, like Faulk, fill overlooked but important roles. And some of them could be significant to the outcomes of this weekend's divisional-round games. Here is a look at one such player per team:
Marc Colombo, OT, Dallas: For the second season in a row, the first-round pick (by Chicago) started every game at right tackle and played well. Not bad considering that Colombo missed more than two years rehabilitating from a dislocated left patella and femoral nerve damage suffered during his 2002 rookie campaign. He's battled back to turn himself into a solid player again, but he will be tested Sunday by New York Giants left end Michael Strahan, one of the best pass-rushers of this era.
On the defensive side, Jay Ratliff, a three-year veteran who assumed the starting job when Jason Ferguson was lost to a biceps injury in the season opener, isn't a classic 3-4 nose tackle. Ratliff doesn't have prototype bulk for the position, but he is very quick and can penetrate into the backfield. He also provides a little pass rush and had three sacks in 2007. His play in controlling the middle will be critical against thunderous Giants tailback Brandon Jacobs.
Terry Cousin, CB, Jacksonville: The venerable nickel cornerback, 32 years old, in his 11th NFL season and with his sixth different franchise, is going to play a lot of snaps Saturday night, because New England typically takes 75 percent of its offensive snaps from a three- or four-wideout formation. If he's playing the slot receiver, that means he will most often draw Wes Welker, who tied for the NFL lead with 112 catches in 2007. Cousin has long been a gambler who will take some risks in the hope of finding a reward, but he knows how to play the game. He has 11 career interceptions and 62 passes defensed, so he's around the football a lot.Starting cornerback Brian Williams, who has actually been more consistent in 2007 than his more heralded partner, Rashean Mathis, is another lesser-known defender who could be in the spotlight. Williams had three interceptions this season and, as is reflected in his 68 tackles, he will come up and support the run.
Clinton Hart, SS, San Diego: A former special-teams standout, Hart was once thought to be a liability in coverage, but he had a very nice season in 2007, his first year as a starter. He started all 16 games, one more start than he had his entire previous career, and his five interceptions equaled his career total. He also had a career-high 85 tackles. It's likely the Chargers will attempt to reduce the times that Hart is singled up against Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who is usually flexed off the line or in the slot, but they might not be able to totally avoid those situations. At some point, you can bet, the Colts' alignments will force Hart into covering Clark and will test him up the seams.On offense, San Diego wide receiver Chris Chambers, acquired from Miami at the trade deadline, isn't exactly unknown. But if the Chargers are without injured tight end Antonio Gates (toe), Chambers will take on more importance in the passing game. And Chambers, a long receiver with the kind of size that might be effective against the Colts' corners, can stretch the field some. In his 10 games with the Chargers, he had 35 catches for 555 yards and four touchdowns.
Ed Johnson, DT, Indianapolis: An undrafted rookie free agent from Penn State, Johnson filled a huge void when starter Anthony McFarland sustained a season-ending patella tendon injury early in training camp. He beat out more experienced players, started all 16 games and finished with 41 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.Johnson isn't a dominating interior presence, but he combines the kind of one-gap quickness it takes to play in the Indianapolis scheme with surprisingly good ability to anchor versus the run. The Colts figure to see a steady diet of San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson this weekend, and Johnson, who will face some of the league's best interior blockers, will have to be stout.
Brian Russell, SS, Seattle: Signed by the Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent last spring, the six-year veteran teamed with free safety Deon Grant to give Seattle the kind of stability that had been missing from the interior of the team's secondary. Russell was never as good a ball athlete as his nine interceptions in 2003 made him appear to be -- he's had only six picks in the four seasons since, including one in 2007 -- but he is football-smart, aggressive and a solid tackler. In his first season with the franchise, Russell started all 16 games and had 68 tackles. With him in the lineup, the communication in the Seahawks' secondary -- a major deficiency last season -- dramatically improved.Fullback Leonard Weaver is another notable overachiever. Weaver, who took over for Mack Strong when a neck injury ended the starter's career, isn't the lead blocker that the 14-year veteran was, but he is a better runner and receiver and provides a much-needed extra dimension to the sporadic Seattle ground game.
Justin Tuck, DE, N.Y. Giants: The team's No. 3 end, Tuck had a breakout season, and his 10 sacks ranked second on the team, behind only Osi Umenyiora and one ahead of Strahan. A third-round pick in 2005 from Notre Dame, Tuck logs a lot of snaps, as exemplified by his 65 tackles, and is a key component in New York's nickel pass-rush alignment On third down, he often aligns inside at tackle, where he can use his quickness against the league's slower guards.Another player to watch is rookie tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, a seventh-round draft choice pressed into service late in the year because of injuries. Bradshaw isn't very big (5-foot-9, 198 pounds), but he runs tougher than his size would indicate and possesses long speed. He had just four carries all season until the next-to-last game, against Buffalo, when he registered 17 attempts for 151 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown run. In the wild-card win at Tampa Bay, he provided a nice change of pace, rushing for 66 yards on 17 carries.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.