JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Long before nobody else knew their names or refused to give them any respect, the biggest critic of the New England Patriots' defensive secondary came from within.
After cornerback Ty Law went down with a foot injury, it wasn't long before safety Rodney Harrison was calling Law and pleading with him to make it back as quickly as he could. When Tyrone Poole went out for the season, Harrison's running partners became Asante Samuel, a second-year corner, and Randall Gay, an undrafted rookie. Harrison might as well have been starring in antacid commercials.
Harrison knew what was coming next – Troy Brown, a wide receiver of all people, was going to be one of the players he'd have to depend on in his secondary – the same Troy Brown who had never played cornerback in the NFL and the one whom Harrison watched incredulously as Brown started practicing with the defensive backs in training camp.
"I thought it was kind of a joke," Harrison said of his first reaction to Brown's crossover. "But then I saw him knock down a couple balls in training camp, and I knew it was something serious."
Two Philadelphia Eagles receivers – Freddie Mitchell and Terrell Owens – both say they don't know the names of everyone besides Harrison, but it would be a first if both Mitchell and Owens walk out of the Super Bowl making that same claim. Despite its lack of credentials, New England's secondary hasn't embarrassed itself. Judging by their performance over the latter half of the season, Samuel and Gay will be permanent fixtures over the next few years.
"(Gay) is smart and very, very confident," Harrison said. "He's such a smart rookie. He's probably the smartest rookie I've been around."
While most rookies, especially undrafted ones, would sink in coach Bill Belichick's book like quicksand, Gay has been quite the opposite, voraciously eating up the plays and showing his ability for quick recall. Gay, however, had a major advantage over almost anyone else stepping into Belichick's system. He was coming from Louisiana State, where then-coach Nick Saban, a Belichick protégé, was using much of the same verbiage and at least a hint of the ideologies the Patriots were employing.
"That is one thing that I noticed from the first day is that our defense was very similar," said Gay, whose experience in college as a corner, nickel back and free safety also helped. "Same calls, same lingo, and some terminology was pretty close so I didn't have to struggle with learning the playbook. All I had to do was focus on was doing what they wanted me to do right."
Paired together as starting corners, both Gay and Samuel have been impressively invisible, save for a monster hit Samuel put on Colts wide receiver Brandon Stokley in the divisional playoffs. But the true star has been Brown, who has drawn assignments on receivers such as Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison and Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress and produced great results. While he might not be operating at a Pro Bowl level on defense, Brown looks like he could start at corner for at least a few teams.
"To do what he's accomplished, go out there and get (three) interceptions to help us out – he's playing better (as a nickel cornerback) than 80 percent of the nickel guys in the league," Harrison said. "You've got guys out there making a couple of million bucks a year just playing third downs, and he's doing it playing offense, defense and special teams.
"He had Marvin Harrison a lot in man-to-man, and if you watch the film, he did a wonderful job. He held Plaxico Burress to a few catches. I think he has Pro Bowl potential."
Not so glory days
It's inevitable that one team is going to walk away from Sunday's game with some deep-seeded disappointment. Most players have suffered some kind of heartbreaking loss before, but as Patriots fullback Patrick Pass observed, some experienced the agony of defeat a little earlier than others.
Pass, who has a distinguished baseball background, is still recovering from one loss as a Little Leaguer.
"I was pitching in the Little League World Series in Georgia," he said. "It was 7-4 and the opposing team had the bases loaded. I threw one right down the middle and the guy crushed it. We lost 8-7. I pulled my heart out. I was just pounding away at the mound like it was the mound's fault."
"It was a big blow," he added. "I overcame it, but as a little kid when you are 10 or 11 and something like that happens to you, it's almost as if the world is coming to an end."
Picks of the litter
Was the 2003 draft a big year for the Patriots or what? New England has gotten some kind of significant contribution from every player it selected in the first five rounds.
In order, they were: defensive end Ty Warren (first round), safety Eugene Wilson (second), wide receiver Bethel Johnson (second), defensive tackle Dan Klecko (fourth), cornerback Asante Samuel (fourth) and center Dan Koppen (fifth).
That's on top of the 2002 class, when four of their six picks produced tight end Daniel Graham (first), wide receiver Deion Branch (second), defensive end Jarvis Green (fourth) and wide receiver David Givens (seventh).
Fans who haven't had the chance to catch the NFL Network on satellite this season will get a small taste of the network's creativity during Super Bowl commercials.
All year long, the network has produced funny and often very witty commercials, including this month's spoof on preseason predictions where fans made a wide array of off-the-mark assessments before the games began. "Rich Gannon to Jerry Rice, Rich Gannon to Tim Brown – all season long," one fan says.
In another, a Patriots fan says sarcastically (in full-blown New England accent), "Hey Donnie! What's the name of that quarterback the Steelers took in the draft? Rothel-something. Nice pick, Cowher."
Fans tuning in on Sunday will see the latest effort, where a pack of stars who didn't get to the big game sings a horribly off-tune rendition of "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie." It's the early favorite for best commercial. Surely, whoever is putting these together for the NFL Network should be used more widely next season.