LaFell's rise crucial to Pats' success

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Brandon LaFell is suiting up for the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, just as he planned last summer when he was an NFL free agent on the cusp of signing with a contending team led by a Hall of Fame quarterback.

But then, the Denver Broncos spurned him and chose to sign Emmanuel Sanders instead. That meant LaFell needed to quickly warm to the idea of cozying up to the very team he had been prepping himself to abhor as a Bronco: the New England Patriots.

The Patriots, who also fervently courted Sanders, felt LaFell could contribute as a second or third receiver with size and sound technique to run out routes for Tom Brady.

It was an alluring, as well as imposing, scenario for LaFell, who did his research and learned that New England's offense was predicated on intricate sets with several moving parts and had thwarted the career aspirations of a number of receivers before him.

"It's very complicated here," LaFell acknowledged. "The playbook is so long.

"Plus, you had guys like [Julian] Edelman and DA [Danny Amendola] who had been here a while, and a couple of guys [Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins] who showed a lot of promise, and I'm looking at it thinking, 'I've got to figure out a way to fit in.'

"I had to find a way to go out and give Tom a reason to throw me the ball."

He arrived from the Carolina Panthers with a lingering reputation of a receiver who wasn't completely reliable because he couldn't secure his catches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, LaFell dropped 6 percent of the passes thrown to him in 2013, compared to the previous season's drop rate of 2.7 percent. (The league average in 2014 was 3.6 percent.)

The memory that chagrined Panthers fans couldn't discard was the December 2012 game in which LaFell let a 52-yard pass from Cam Newton slip through his hands in a particularly galling loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney, who drafted LaFell, said the one issue about the big, fluid receiver coming out of LSU was "his ability to catch the ball consistently."

"We knew he had small hands," Hurney said. "We must have spent two weeks talking about his hands. But he always made the catches he had to make. I just think he's an excellent receiver.

"I thought he was a perfect fit in New England because they like receivers who run precise routes, which is what Brandon does."

LaFell was in New England's organized team activities for all of an hour before he realized a drop would earn him a death stare from No. 12 and a dreaded shake of the head from the coach in the hoodie. Coach Bill Belichick wasted no time in peppering LaFell with questions as he ventured into his first team meeting.

"I'm barely through the door and he's asking me, 'LaFell, what do you think about this guy? What coverage are you in? What do you have to do to shake him?'" LaFell recalled. "He's tough, man. It keeps you in that playbook on Monday and Tuesday, and those are supposed to be our days off."

He conceded that after OTAs he was "shell-shocked" by the team's complex offensive system. After camp broke in August, he candidly admitted he had dropped too many balls. "I haven't been finishing enough plays," he said.

LaFell looked for a sign -- any sign -- of how he was performing. The coach gave him nothing. Brady pulled him aside and worked on his timing and his technique, while LaFell logged extra time in the film room and plowed through some injuries that probably should have sidelined him. When he made a mistake, he simply put his head down and jogged back to the line. The silence during those miscues could be deafening, but he was used to it.

"I played with Steve Smith for the last four years," LaFell explained. "When I first got to Carolina, he told me, 'If you're not catching balls and blocking, I'm not talking to you.'"

In Weeks 1-3, LaFell was targeted on just 12.6 percent of New England's offensive plays. He was on the field for 51.9 percent of the snaps and was averaging just 1.3 receptions a game. He didn't score a touchdown in those first three weeks, and his drop rate was 7.1 percent.

The narrative quickly evolved into a possible disconnect between Brady and LaFell. Why weren't they on the same page? Did LaFell know the routes? Why couldn't he hang on to the ball? What few outsiders knew was the quarterback and the receiver were quietly developing a relationship rooted in their attention to detail.

The playbook was daunting, but so was the cadence of the offense orchestrated by that persnickety quarterback who had very specific ideas on how things should go.

"It's not just a matter of remembering the plays," Amendola explained. "It's understanding how the whole machine works; the timing in between plays, subbing in and subbing out, getting in and out of the huddle, finding [the rhythm] of what we're trying to accomplish."

LaFell was targeted six times in Week 1 but didn't catch a ball. He wasn't targeted at all in Week 2 and was used primarily as a blocker. His presence as a potential deep threat was compromised by an offensive line adjusting to the loss of veteran Logan Mankins, who had been traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In those early weeks, Brady simply didn't have enough time to look downfield.

Patience, LaFell told himself. Resiliency. Although his new teammates said little, they had already taken note of his mental aptitude and physical endurance. One offensive teammate said LaFell's ability to battle through a painful shoulder injury all year was impressive.

"He earned our respect by being there on every play, every snap, through training camp, through OTAs," safety Devin McCourty said. "No matter what was going [on], whether he was hurting or not, he proved to be a guy we could count on.

"That's a very big thing on this team. That's what toughness is in this league."

LaFell's moment came at the lowest point of New England's season, in the midst of a 41-14 blowout loss to Kansas City. The Patriots were being pounded 27-0 when LaFell hauled in a Brady throw, shed two defenders and rumbled 44 yards into the end zone. It didn't turn the game around, but it didn't go unnoticed. The new receiver wasn't a quitter.

"All up and down the sidelines, all the coaches kept saying was, 'Don't give up, don't give up,'" LaFell said. "Tom was in the huddle shouting to us, 'Let's keep fighting.'

"You are as good as you look on film. Who wants to look terrible on film because you didn't play hard enough?"

The touchdown was his first in a Patriots uniform. LaFell emerged as a lone bright spot on an otherwise dreary Monday night for New England.

"After that game," LaFell said, "everything changed."

Since Week 4, LaFell has averaged 5.4 receptions and 69.2 yards per game and has scored eight touchdowns.

The drop rate? It's down to 1.8 percent since that loss to Kansas City. By way of comparison, Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton's drop rate is 6 percent.

"Every time you drop a pass, you hear about it," LaFell acknowledged. "As long as I've been playing football, I've never seen a receiver go the whole season without dropping a pass. It is what it is. I'm not going to listen to people outside this locker room.

"If I do drop a pass here, during that long walk back to the huddle I'm not getting cussed out. I don't hear anybody jumping down my throat. What I'm hearing is, 'Let it go. Get it next time. Let's make another play.'"

Since Week 4, LaFell has been on the field for 87.7 percent of the team's snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and Brady has targeted him 20.6 percent of the time. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is still the primary immovable force and Edelman remains the redoubtable choice underneath, but LaFell has emerged as a dynamic third option who can stretch the field. It is a dimension that had been lacking in New England's arsenal.

The foundation for LaFell's connection with Brady was laid in that Kansas City loss but cemented in a Week 8 win over the Chicago Bears in which he caught 11 balls for 124 yards and a touchdown.

"All week in practice before that game, Tom was coming to me on every throw," LaFell said. "I was thinking to myself, 'Man, I haven't been around long enough. This is fine in practice, but there's no way he's coming to me this much in the game.'

"But then, he did. Thirteen targets. That's a lot of throws. It was crazy, man. He was looking at me at the line of scrimmage and checking off to run plays for me. I was like, 'OK. It's on.'"

It was a Brady-to-LaFell 23-yard, game-winning touchdown that enabled New England to squeak past the Baltimore Ravens last week in the divisional playoffs and advance to Sunday's game against the Colts. While LaFell received many deserved accolades for that catch, including a declaration from Brady that he's "the toughest guy I've ever played with," he also scored points for his blocking.

Belichick, who, according to LaFell, still hasn't offered him a single word of encouragement since LaFell arrived, paid him the ultimate compliment in a recent interview with Patriots.com regarding his role in the Brady-to-Amendola touchdown.

"One of the things you really love about LaFell -- I love coaching him -- is this type of play right [there]," Belichick said. "He sees [Darian] Stewart coming over to make the tackle, he has got [Rashaan] Melvin, and he just comes off and nicks him so Danny can get into the end zone. A heads-up play, a smart play, a play that, honestly, most receivers aren't really looking to make. He's not only blocking his guy, but now he sees a more dangerous guy coming and he takes care of him so Danny can get in the end zone."

Like most athletes, LaFell has thrived as Brady's and Belichick's confidence in him has grown. It has been a work in progress.

"I've played with a lot of good quarterbacks, but none of them want to be as perfect as Tom," LaFell said. "Even that ball the other day. It was perfect, but he's coming up to me and saying, 'Next time I'm going to get a little more outside so it won't be so tough for you.'

"When you earn Tom's trust, it doesn't matter if you are in double coverage, he's going to throw you the ball and let you make a play. As a receiver, that's what you live for."

Edelman understands all of it. He remembers the first time he stepped on the field and tried to navigate the demands of an uncompromising quarterback and coach who he knew would either solidify or shred his future.

"It's a little intimidating," Edelman confirmed, "but Brandon has handled it better than almost anyone I've seen since I've been here."

LaFell has already established career highs in receiving yards (1,015), touchdowns (eight) and yards per game (59.7) this season, including the playoff win over Baltimore.

Asked what effect he thought LaFell would have on the AFC Championship Game, Hurney answered, "He'll be exactly where Tom Brady wants him to be."

Forgive LaFell for noting exactly where the Denver Broncos and Emmanuel Sanders will be on Sunday -- home, watching the Patriots and their quarterback and his big, fluid receiver who has finally caught on.