HOUSTON -- They don't keep cellphones underneath the padding of the goal posts. There are no Sharpies in their socks. They are not tall or distinguishable. They do not demand they get the damn ball. They do not berate the quarterback when they're open and he fails to see them. They are not perennial All-Pros. They are young and old. None of them wowed anyone during their collegiate careers.
Meet the New England Patriots receiving corps.
You hear the remarks around the country that Tom Brady must be great because "he has nothing around him." This is as insulting as it is untrue. While there is no Marvin Harrison or Terrell Owens in the Patriots' arsenal, there are, in the words of receivers coach Brian Daboll, "Guys who will do everything it takes to get open, catch the ball, and win."
And maybe Deion Branch, who was the Patriots' leading receiver with 57 catches for 803 yards and three touchdowns, or David Givens, who caught 34 passes for a team-high six touchdowns, or Bethel Johnson, who had 16 catches and two touchdowns, aren't household names, but take your eyes off them and Johnson will blow past you, Branch will make a move to leave you red-faced, and Givens will outmuscle and outjump you for the ball in the end zone.
They are a good crop of young receivers in their first or second years who have complemented veteran Troy Brown, who missed all or part of five games with a leg injury, limiting him to 40 receptions.
Everyone knows Brown, the quiet, classy player who can still make big plays (see the 82-yard reception to beat the Dolphins in overtime Oct. 19 in Miami) and who has been the leader of the group for a while. He learned professionalism from Ben Coates, and Shawn Jefferson was also an influence. Youngsters Johnson, Branch, and Givens all revere Brown, who has taught them the finer points of the game, most notably the art of running a good pass route.
"I got hurt early in the season and we had some guys step up and make some plays," said Brown. "That's what you have to do when you have so many injuries. We have had guys all over the field get hurt. When I came back I took my role [often as a third receiver] and tried to do the best I could at it."
They have made Brady's existence pleasurable. "I wouldn't trade these guys in for any receivers in the game," said Brady. "These guys run great routes; they're always where they're supposed to be. They give me options. A lot of options."
It is a receiving corps with speed -- Johnson is one of the fastest players in the NFL, Branch is quick, and Givens is quickly becoming a Hines Ward-like receiver, using his routes and his physicality to catch the ball in traffic. Brown does the unexplainable. The Patriots also have used veteran Dedric Ward, built very much in the mold of Johnson, Branch, and Brown, and the 6-foot-4-inch J.J. Stokes has been with the team, released, and now is back, but he, too, has contributed. The Ward and Stokes signings were necessitated by the loss of David Patten, who went on injured reserve Nov. 7 with a knee injury.
When it's time to make a play, the Patriots receivers seem to make it.
And they take their lead from Brown.
"One thing I tell them is you can't be afraid of contact,' said Brown. "It's a contact sport, and I'm not sure a lot of receivers understand that. Their corners and safeties are going to come up and hit you. There are going to be times when we get hit. So what are you going to do about it? Let them do it? You're allowed to hit back, too. You can be physical back at them."
Brown has acted like a second receivers coach; a godsend to Daboll, a young coach on Charlie Weis's staff. Daboll has been able to teach precise route-running by using Brown as an example.
Givens has made great strides from his rookie year.
"He's really no different than the other guys," said Daboll. "David's always asking for input and trying to get better. Deion is a smart young receiver. He picks up things very quick, catches the ball fairly well. And Bethel is also coming on."
Daboll says he's excited about Johnson's speed.
"Yeah, I'm excited as long as he can make the plays that go along with it, doing what he's supposed to do and being where he's supposed to be," he said.
Johnson said he hit his rookie wall very early in the season, but he also had a blip when he was inactive for the Dec. 14 game against Jacksonville, when it was reported he didn't display the right attitude during the week leading up to the game.
`Y'all blew it out of proportion," Johnson said yesterday. "Coach Belichick and I knew the situation. Y'all didn't know. You all assume it was this, that, and the other thing. I'm not going to say what it was, but that's all in the past. As you can see everything has been going smoothly. I don't think it's something to learn from, just something to build off. You're going to have a stumbling block somewhere in your rookie year or in your career. You've got to say, `OK, this is what you've got to do or you're going to hurt yourself and your team.' [Belichick] did what he had to do. They didn't need me that week. The team did fine. You can let that tear you down, instead I let that build me up."
Johnson, who led the AFC in kickoff return average (28.2 yards) and recorded five returns of 50 or more yards, including one for a touchdown, believes he's been given the opportunity to do more as a rookie than he expected when drafted in the second round out of Texas A&M.
"I've learned to be a professional receiver," Johnson said. "In college, you can use your speed because you're faster than anybody. Here, a lot of people are fast so you have to run very disciplined routes."
Givens, a native of the Houston suburb of Humble and a Notre Dame product, said his breakout moment as a pro came in the Patriots' 20-17 loss to the Redskins.
"I became really focused in that Washington game this year," said Givens, who spent the offseason catching hundreds of balls and watching tape of Pittsburgh receiver Ward. "I had a few catches and my first touchdown this year. I got locked into a mode of catching every ball. It was a game where I ran good routes and caught everything thrown to me, and I realized that if I do things a certain way, that I can play in this league.
"When I step onto the field I try to take on the mentality that nobody is better than I am. If I keep that in my mind every game, I think that will keep me going."
The Patriots believe Branch has the chance to be a star, with a combination of speed, Brown's savvy, and the ability to get open. Branch, a University of Louisville product, had a very consistent season.
"Deion is going to have a big-time career," Brown said.