FOXBOROUGH - When the Patriots drew up their master plan for the season, it's doubtful it contained any scenario in which quarterback Matt Cassel handed off to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, other than in practice or the preseason, certainly not with first place in the division was at stake.
But when the Patriots face the New York Jets tonight at Gillette Stadium in just such a game, Cassel and Green-Ellis will likely be the starting backfield.
In this season of seemingly unending injuries, the Patriots have plowed ahead by plugging in players like Cassel, a seventh-round draft choice in 2005, and Green-Ellis, an undrafted rookie, players who have clawed their way up from the depths of the Patriots' roster to help the team rise to the top of the AFC East.
The latest example could be outside linebacker Pierre Woods, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2006 and is now in line to replace injured starter Adalius Thomas (broken right forearm).
On a lot of NFL teams, Cassel, Green-Ellis, and Woods would have been shown the door on pedigree alone prior to getting their opportunity to play leading roles, but that's not how coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli do business.
Pedigree might get you a shot at a job, but performance promises employment. Just ask Chad Jackson, a 2006 second-round pick the team jettisoned prior to the season.
"It is based on their performance and what they do with the opportunities that they get, not where they were drafted," said Belichick. "We have cut second-, third-, fourth-round draft choices. So, those guys aren't better than the guys who come in and aren't drafted. We are going to keep the best players and the guys that deserve to be here. That's what we believe in, that's the way we try to run the team, and I think going forward the people who look at our situation say with confidence, 'We are going to get a fair shot there,' based on our track record or at least I hope so because that really is true."
In the case of Green-Ellis, who had the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career last Sunday against the Bills (26 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown), the Patriots' track record did help. Green-Ellis said that lots of teams courted him when he went undrafted out of the University of Mississippi, but that on the advice of his agent he decided to sign with New England.
That seemed like a curious choice since the team already had Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Heath Evans on the roster at the time.
The choice may have looked even worse when the Patriots signed LaMont Jordan during the summer and Green-Ellis ended up getting cut out of camp. But Green-Ellis bided his time on the practice squad and when injuries to Maroney and Jordan put him on the active roster and a knee injury to Morris put him in the starting lineup, he seized the opportunity.
"That's what happens in this league," said Cassel, who is replacing Tom Brady, a 2000 sixth-round draft choice who got his big break in 2001 because of injury. "There's going to be injuries. There are people that go down, and when you're a backup in any system, you have to be ready to step in and step up, close ranks, and move forward because that's what happens.
"We play a volatile game, and it's a violent game, people are going to get injured. That's just really what it is and a lot of these guys wouldn't be here unless they had the talent level and the coaches didn't believe in them."
It would be one thing if Green-Ellis and Cassel were isolated cases, but they're not. The Patriots' roster has other pads-to-riches stories.
Starting right guard Stephen Neal didn't play a down of college football before coming to the Patriots in 2001 as a wrestler hoping to pin down a roster spot. Reserve defensive end and nose tackle Mike Wright, who sees time in the team's sub packages, was an undrafted rookie free agent out of Cincinnati in 2005. Undrafted rookie linebacker Gary Guyton is a valuable part of the team's nickel and dime packages, has seen action in the base 3-4, and could be called upon to take some of Thomas's duties.
These are all players other teams passed on.
"I think it is a credit to Scott, your scouts, and that part of the operation to keep players like that in your system," said Belichick. "And there's been a lot of those functional opportunities, too. If certain things hadn't happened, then BenJarvus might not have gotten the opportunity. That has been true of other players in other years and other situations where it has maybe taken longer or those opportunities didn't come as quickly, or sometimes they did like Brady."
Make no mistake, Belichick is a cold, calculating coach when it comes to deciding who plays and who sits and who stays and who goes. But even he enjoys a good underdog story.
"Guys that are undrafted have a certain degree of underdog status, long shot, or whatever you want to call it," he said. "So, it is great to see those guys that nobody talks about or nobody has any hype for do well and be able to play, compete, and have a job and position in this league. To me that is what the NFL is all about . . . It is not about your pedigree. It is about your performance, and I like that. That is the way it should be and that's the way I try to make it here."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.