FOXBORO -- Introducing rookies into an NFL system can be a challenge, as the Patriots can attest. But bringing in veterans, especially after the season has already started, isn't necessarily that much easier.
New England signed Austin Collie on Thursday, October 3. Would the veteran receiver get into the following Sunday's game in Cincinnati? Unquestionably, Tom Brady could only benefit from having an experienced target to throw to. And despite a history of injuries, Collie's 42 games played to that point were almost four times as many as played by Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, and Josh Boyce combined.
Yet when game time rolled around, Collie went inactive. The decision, according to Bill Belichick, was not clear-cut.
"The first week he was probably, we probably could have played him," the coach said. "But I would say that there was a lot of growth from week one to week two. I think we all felt – myself, Josh [McDaniels], Chad [O’Shea], the quarterbacks – that he was much further along the second week. He’d heard it the second time, he’d repped it more, he was more familiar with the terms and things like that, even though in the [Saints] game, we were in more of a no-huddle offense and the week before, against Cincinnati we were more calling the plays in the huddle.
"But regardless, he just seemed quicker, had fewer questions, was more confident, played quicker, played faster so I think it’s a combination of all those things."
Belichick noted you can't prepare a new player for every game situation, no matter how many walkthroughs, meetings, film sessions, and conversations the coaching staff initiates.
So how do you know such players are ready to take the field?
"I mean, they’re never 100 percent ready. But there’s a difference between being ready and when you put the person in there and feel like, well there’s just too many things that can and probably will go wrong because they’re just not prepared enough for those. We know there are going to be one or two things that are going to come up that we haven’t covered, they’re just going to have to react to and hope it’s the right thing."
Certain progress can be gauged in practice, but the steps taken in the classroom are equally important. Collie has admitted to bugging Brady and the coaches non-stop to quiz him on plays, calls, and concepts -- fine for a first week. Even the longest-tenured Patriot can get one or two answers wrong during preparation. What Belichick and his staff look for from new players is advancement in communication, comprehension, decision-making, and reactions.
"It’s kind of a judgment thing," the coach said. "But crossing that bridge, once you’re across it, you feel like, ‘OK, we’re pretty confident he’s got it.’"
It's a fine line.
"What it looks like on Wednesday, what it looks like on Thursday, what it looks on Friday, maybe even what it looks like on Saturday, sometimes changes with a new player," he explained. "Sometimes it crystallizes and it becomes more solid and sometimes as you from first and second down to third down to red area to two-minute, that it unravels if you will. The wheel spins faster and what they had on Wednesday, I don’t want to say forgotten, but maybe gotten confused with some of the things that come up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday."
The coach stressed the fact every player learns differently, and at different rates. Some guys appear to be comfortable on Day 1 but end up completely overwhelmed by the weekend. Others start slowly, and after repeated reps and multiple meetings, feel things start to settle in.
It was Collie's quiet confidence in his second week that pushed Belichick to activate him against the Saints. And it appeared persistence paid off; the receiver had two huge catches, including a 9-yard grab on fourth-and-4, in Brady's final game-winning drive.
"It’s certainly a very individualized type of call and I don’t think there’s any book on that. You just have to try to figure it out the best you can."