FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few things could be counted on when wide receiver Brandon LaFell played for the New England Patriots from 2014-2015: He’d usually wear a different hat each day, and like the brim on each one, he was a straight shooter.
A reminder of the latter point came this week during an interview from Cincinnati, where he’s been preparing for his return to Gillette Stadium on Sunday with the Bengals.
There was much ground to cover to officially close the chapter of his career that featured scintillating highs, including a Super Bowl championship in a year he caught a career-high 74 passes, and crushing lows that led to him being cut after the next season with one year remaining on his contract.
The 29-year-old LaFell summed it up this way: “It was two different seasons. I played great my first year. My second year, I was an average guy and that’s why they had to let me go.”
One lingering question was how things tailed off as dramatically as they did, and LaFell is now willing to help fill in the details.
It all began when he injured his left foot in the fourth quarter of the 2014 season finale against the Buffalo Bills, which was a meaningless game in terms of playoff seeding, but turned out to be especially meaningful to LaFell’s future in New England.
Little did he know at the time how much the foot injury would be an issue the rest of his time with the Patriots.
“It bothered me throughout the whole playoffs. I had a cortisone shot in the playoffs and played my way through and practiced some days, and it worked out pretty well,” recalled LaFell, who had the winning touchdown catch in the AFC divisional-round victory over Baltimore and scored the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLIX.
“In the offseason, my foot just wasn’t healing the way me and the trainers discussed how it would heal. We thought it was going to hold up and by the time I got to OTAs, I was going to be OK and back to normal. But it wasn’t healing and then my foot started discoloring. So we had to go in and see the doctor and I had to have surgery on my foot.”
Those previously undisclosed details help explain the timeline that led LaFell to open 2015 on the physically unable to perform list, which sidelined him for the first six regular-season games.
When he came back in Week 7, he endured one of the toughest games of his career, with multiple drops in a 30-23 win over the New York Jets. He had been targeted eight times, had just two catches, and was fighting the ball as he tried to make the transition to regular-season action after just three practices.
But what LaFell never said publicly was that his left foot was still an issue.
“When I came back it didn’t feel good, but I kept playing. I’m not the one who is going to sit back and complain. I’m going to go hard for my team,” he said. “It was tough, but at the end of the day, I wanted to be out there. I was tired of sitting on the bench and watching guys go out there and ball. I wanted to be a part of that. It was probably me being too eager to get out there too early. I probably should have waited an extra week.”
Yet even that might not have made a major difference to how the rest of the season played out for him, as he finished with 37 receptions and slipped to No. 4 on the receivers depth chart by the AFC title game.
“I just look at it when I was healthy and full go, I played lights out. That was my first year. My second year, man, with the foot injury I just could never get over it. It just never felt right for a whole week or for a couple games back to back,” he said.
“I could never get back into my rhythm and get back to playing like the way I know how to play. I felt like I was hurting the team going out there playing half-injured, but we had so many other guys at the receiver position that were hurt, so I had to play.”
LaFell sounds like he holds no ill will toward the Patriots for releasing him on March 2, saying that he’s excited for his return Sunday and that he still keeps in touch with several former teammates, most notably quarterback Tom Brady.
It also helps that he’s landed in a good spot with the Bengals, for whom he’s played 93.2 percent of the offensive snaps in their 2-3 start and has totaled 21 catches for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
Envisioning what Sunday will be like with either Malcolm Butler or Logan Ryan covering him, LaFell said, “It’s definitely going to be like one of those old days in training camp, when you’re out there competing. It’s going to be a battle.”
Then he added, “I had a lot of great memories in that stadium. It’s going to be great to come back and be in that atmosphere and see some old teammates.”