FOXBORO -- It's been over a calendar year since Austin Collie played in a regular season NFL game.
When asked after New England's win over the Saints how he felt to be back on the field, he paused. You could almost see Collie rolling possible answers around on his tongue, savoring the moment before finally settling on the right word.
"Phenomenal," he said.
It sounded like an offering of thanks. Understandable; Collie has suffered both the physical pain of a ruptured patella tendon, four concussions and the mental anguish of missing 22 games in two seasons.
"It's what I put a year and a half of rehab and hard work, missing seasons, not being able to be out there with the guys [into]," he said.
Tom Brady threw seven passes in Sunday night's game-winning series. It was a do-or-die drive; New England was down to New Orleans 27-23, had 70 yards to go, and just 73 seconds to do it in.
Two of those crucial throws went to Collie: Patriot for all of 10 days. The plays were good for 15 yards on first-and-10 and, after two incomplete passes to fifth-year Patriot Julian Edelman, 9 huge yards on fourth-and-4.
They were Collie's only targets of the game.
"I had the mentality that I was going to be a star in the game," Collie said, "even though I knew I wasn't."
Though the routes are similar to what he ran in 42 games with the Colts, Collie admitted extra study has been necessary. He has worked doggedly since New England signed him October 3.
"It's just a matter of knowing the wording, knowing the concepts," he said. "[Receivers coach Chad] O'Shea has been awesome as far as reviewing with me and spending the time goes. I know I can get annoying at times, but he puts up with it. Thanks to him I was able to go in prepared."
O'Shea isn't the only person Collie's bugging. The receiver stays by Brady's hip as much as possible during practice. He has his QB quiz him on plays and calls while they're running and stretching.
"It's one thing to hear it from your coach or another person, but it's another to hear it from the person who's actually going to be calling it," Collie explained. "I had to get used to that and take every opportunity possible, so in all the free time that we have, I'm always asking questions."
Has Brady ever told him to zip it?
"No, but he probably wants to," Collie smiled. "And so does my coach. But I'm pretty persistent. And they're awesome -- very resourceful, very helpful, and very patient."
The work appears to be paying off. And he's happy to quiet some of the chatter.
Collie's signing was accompanied by questions of capability and durability. Maybe he would be rusty. Maybe he wouldn't even get in a game. All injuries are difficult, but concussions are an extremely sensitive issue in sports.
Seeing him debut in New England's last stand had to make some fans nervous. Collie, however, was confident.
"I'm not a rookie," he stated. "This is my fifth year in the league and I've played in situations like this, so you kind of know how to react, you kind of know what mentality you've got to have. It was kind of a second nature type of thing."
Second nature to save a drive from drowning on fourth down? So it appeared Sunday night. The next step is becoming a consistently dependable target. Collie believes he can do it, he just needs the chance.
"Hopefully this is just a start," he said. "But it's a good start."