FOXBOROUGH -- Reche Caldwell learned pretty quickly this spring what he needed to do to master the Patriots' multi-optioned passing game: forget everything he ever learned about offense, and go from there.
``You gotta leave your old system where it's at," the former San Diego Charger and University of Florida wideout explained last week as he made final preparations to try to fill the void in New England's receiving corps today when the Patriots open up a new season against the Buffalo Bills with an all-new front line of wideouts. ``This is a whole new world over here.
``Some offenses are sort of the same. You can mix and match what you did with what they want to do. Not here. I had to leave San Diego totally behind me."
That might not be the worst thing for the former second-round draft choice who was dogged by injuries in 2003 and 2004 after being taken in 2002 by the Chargers with high expectations that the performances that made him All-Southeastern Conference would continue in the NFL. Had his body not betrayed him, they might have, because by his third year Caldwell had won a starting job, was leading the Chargers in receptions, and was on pace for a 60-catch season. Then his knee gave out, and by the time he came back in 2005, new faces had replaced him and the Chargers were winning with them.
It's a familiar story in professional athletics, which is often a business based on opportunity missed or capitalized upon as much as it is about talent. The Patriots hit it big in that regard with former Steelers backup linebacker Mike Vrabel. He was unable to crack a veteran lineup in Pittsburgh but came to New England in free agency and is now a mainstay.
Caldwell is hopeful the story will be similar for him, though his opportunity has been intensified not by a planned vacancy but by the unexpected holdout of Deion Branch. Originally Caldwell was signed during the offseason as a potential replacement for No. 2 receiver David Givens, a competition he would enter into with draft pick Chad Jackson and anyone else who wanted to get in the scrap. But once Branch's contract problems turned into the football version of a Jerry Springer show, everything changed -- including the scrutiny Caldwell was under.
No longer was he seen as a complementary player who would hopefully flower in New England's harsh winters but rather as the potential first option for Tom Brady. The longer Branch's holdout lasted, the more eyes focused not on what Caldwell might become but what he immediately was not. What he was not was Branch, but that's hardly his fault.
For a guy trying to learn his way around a new offense, a new locker room, and a new part of the country, it was a difficult transition, but one made somewhat easier by one man: His quarterback.
``It's a lot different what they do over here," Caldwell said. ``My coach [position coach Brian Daboll] did a great job of coaching me when I first got here and I've been learning things from Tom every day. He works hands-on with the receivers to get the offense going.
``There's a lot more sight adjustments the receivers have to make here. You can be running the right route and still not be in the right place because they want you to read the defenses and adjust your route based on the coverages and whether there's a blitz on. But if you don't know, Brady pretty much tells you what to do. He's like a coach out there but he's real patient. He's been very helpful."
Brady and the Patriots are hoping Caldwell will be helpful against a defense that boasts one of the best cornerback tandems in football in Nate Clements and Terrance McGee. Brady was asked recently about the apparent shortages in the receiving corps and reacted with his usual optimism.
Q: Your receiving corps is not as impressive right now as it was at the end of the playoffs last year.
TB: ``How do we know that?"
Q: Just going on the production of the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers here last year and the fact that they're not here.
TB: ``We haven't given our guys a chance this year, so it's hard to . . ."
Q: How can you be confident that you can avoid allowing defenses to put eight guys in the box to stop the run? How can you put enough pressure on them with the passing game?
TB: ``I think each year is very different. The guys who are there . . . do we have Deion out there? I don't know. Do we have David Givens here? Certainly not. Troy [Brown] is going to be out there. Ben [Watson] is going to be out there. [Kevin] Faulk. Reche can do some great things for us. Doug [Gabriel] is really excited about this opportunity. I really don't know how it's going to turn out.
``I don't want to sit here and bet against us. It's hard to replace guys who have been here for four years who have played at a very high level and have won Super Bowls and you replace those with new guys who, really, their first day of practice was Monday. Will it look great all the time? No. But I think there is certainly a lot of ability out there. Doug can make a lot of plays. Reche can do a lot of really good things."
That drive for extra yardage is a good thing in general, yards after the catch being one of the more important wide receiver statistics. But in Caldwell's case, that drive sometimes got him, and his team, in trouble; it will have to be tempered if he is to reach the level of performance projected for him five years ago when he came off the Florida campus in Gainesville.
``I know what they're talking about," Caldwell said. ``A couple of times I fumbled the ball trying to get extra yards. One was against the Eagles. I got a first down when we were driving and I should have gone down but I tried to get some more yards and got hit and I ended up fumbling the ball and we lost the game.
``You always want to try and make something happen but you need to be smart about it. I've got to recognize when I'm trapped and go down because there's only one of me and three or four of them. It's hard, though, because that's just your competitive nature coming out."
Today Caldwell will feel that side of him burning brightly. He'll not only want to make plays against the Bills, he'll expect to make plays. What he won't expect is to replace Branch; in his mind, that's not the issue.
``I see coming here as an opportunity for me," Caldwell said. ``My career wasn't what I hoped it would be in San Diego. Every time it was my time, I kept getting hurt. Injuries kept me from accomplishing what I wanted. When I got back the last time, the guys they had in there were doing a good job, so I ended up in New England. I thank San Diego for the opportunity. They were the team that first believed in me. I don't wish anything but good for them because they gave me my first chance at my dream.
``When I was a kid [in Tampa], my dream was to play baseball. I started when I was 6 and I played every day.My mother wouldn't even let me play peewee football. I was kind of a mama's boy. She didn't want me to get hurt.
``But when I was 12, I kept bugging her about how bad I wanted to play football with my friends and she finally let me. I played both sports my freshman year in college but then I had to quit baseball for spring football. I just kind of grew out of baseball and ended up liking football better. It seemed more competitive to me.
``I always felt that way. Competitive. I don't worry about who's doing what around me or what people are saying. Some people say because Deion's not here people are looking at me, but I think they're looking at all of us. I don't feel any added pressure. Regardless of who's here or who isn't, I'm still supposed to catch everything that comes to me."
Caldwell caught everything that came to him at Jefferson High School in Tampa, where he was named Florida's 5A player of the year in 1996 as a junior and district MVP two years running. He caught most everything at Florida as well, where he became only the ninth player in school history to gain more than 1,000 yards receiving.
Yet that part, the part that has separated him from so many other 12-year-olds from Tampa to Tacoma, is not apparent to him. He doesn't see it, just as he doesn't see the shadow of Deion Branch stretching out behind him.
``I never had a day where I thought I was better than everyone else," Caldwell said. ``I still don't know that. I just go out to try and prove myself every game. I go out to try and prove to myself that I'm good enough to play in this league. I never think, `I'm good enough to play at this level.' I've got to prove that every day to everybody."
Today he only has to prove it to a few people. The guy calling his number, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and the guy looking for his number, Tom Brady. If he can just do that, the rest of his dream will take care of itself.