By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO -- Tucked into an out-of-the-way corner in the Patriots locker room -- down where the cooler full of water and Gatorade used to be -- are four blue metal lockers.
Down there, three recently-signed players Chevis Jackson, Louis Leonard and Thomas Clayton have their football offices.
In a locker room as sprawling and well-appointed as the Patriots', isn't there room in the main joint for these guys?
No. There's not.
Between active players, practice squad guys and players who've been sent to injured reserve, the Patriots have 74 players currently on their team. So Clayton, Jackson and Leonard are relegated to the manger, as it were.
There are many fascinating aspects to the 2010 Patriots, but the way they've inconspicuously faced down the attrition of an NFL season is one of the most interesting.
When Jonathan Wilhite went to injured reserve on Wednesday, he became the 12th Patriot this year to have his season ended by injury, joining key players like Leigh Bodden, Kevin Faulk, Stephen Gostkowski, Nick Kaczur, Brandon McGowan, Stephen Neal and Ty Warren in NFL limbo.
With three games to go, the 12 players sent to IR exceeds the totals of the Super Bowl seasons of '01, '03 and '04 (10, 11, 11) and approaches the totals of 2008 and 2006 (14 and 13). The Patriots have already used 37 different starters, a total approaching the 2003 team (42), which was the highest number of starters used by a Super Bowl winner.
Two of the prominent IR guys Bodden and Warren were on IR before the season began. Kaczur never got on the field before he was sent there around midseason. As a result, you forget that these are starters that went down. Also overlooked is that would-be starters like Laurence Maroney and Derrick Burgess were traded and released (same with Randy Moss, but there's been no overlooking that).
The Patriots' locker room door is a revolving one but that hasn't stopped them from becoming again the league's best team.
"Every team knows that whoever the 53-man roster is that you have in September, it's probably not going to be who it is at the end of the year," shrugged Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a man who's proven incredibly adept at negotiating roster upheaval.
"It's a long season and there's certainly attrition to it . . . but, that's part of your depth: your roster, your practice squad, players that have been on your team that didn't make the final cut or other players that are available from within the league for one reason or another. That's part of the league," Belichick noted.
Hank Poteat, Kevin Kasper, Earthwind Moreland, Freddie Coleman, Brian Kinchen, Mike Cloud . . . remember those names? Those are ex-Patriots that jumped on a moving bus that was on its way to a Super Bowl championship. Guys who'd been cut or virtually scrap-heaped. Guys like Danny Woodhead, Eric Moore and, really, Deion Branch.
Aside from the guys they've added are the guys who've ascended. Guys like corner Kyle Arrington, guard Dan Connelly or running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
A player like Kevin Faulk, IR'd after Week 2, knows what's going on.
"It's a tribute to the scouting department and a tribute to the players they're bringing in," said Faulk. "Guys want to work. They want the jobs. That's what you want as a football team. As a scouting department, that's what you recruit these backups for. A starter goes down, you're able to have someone go in and do the same job the starter does. Look at Danny. He was cut the week before he signed with us. Guys stepping up know that the opportunity is there. Once you know that the opportunity is there, you gotta be able to go for it. Reach for it and you're gonna get it."
It's interesting to hear Faulk note that incoming players and scrubs understand that "the opportunity is there."
The Patriots are not a team married to its depth chart or to playing individuals based on draft position. The best prepared, the most effective, will play, even if he just drove in from the airport.
"It's somewhat unusual," acknowledges defensive lineman Gerard Warren, a man who's been in Oakland, Denver and Cleveland before coming to New England. "The only other place that came close to being this prepared was Denver when I was out there. The professionalism is what stands out in Denver and New England. In Denver, it's we called 'carrying no dead weight.' Everybody better be prepared to roll, your number could be called tomorrow."
And when it is, you won't necessarily get a watered-down level of expectation. Or be treated like a seat-warmer.
"Every team has a personnel department that has to keep on top of available players and has to make roster moves, whether it's from their practice squad or somewhere else," said Belichick, pointing to the branch run by Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio. "It's something you have to be able to do. The more your players can play multiple positions and do multiple things, then that gives you some degree of depth, but ultimately, you're going to have to fill players' spots with players. So, theyve got to come from somewhere. You have to try and figure out how to get the best out of those guys that are available."
The expectations for backups are high. And, at least in Faulk's case, the personal expectations for a player whose season has ended are high as well.
"There's a big influence," Faulk said when asked what an IR'd player can do for a callup. "It's all on you, it's all on them. They can ask you questions and you tell them what they need to hear. Maybe you're watching a game at home and you see something that may affect them later on in the season. You gotta be aware, you gotta be prepared."
And few do it better than New England.