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ON FOOTBALL

Brown can provide veteran's benefits

FOXBOROUGH -- One could tell from the look on Troy Brown's face Sunday night that he wanted to play badly. It was a big game. National television. Against his former coach, a man he admired and who influenced his career, Bill Parcells.

And after the Patriots' 12-0 win over the Cowboys, while he stood in the Dallas locker room waiting to chat with Terry Glenn, Brown, who has a knee injury, said he could have played but "I guess I didn't show them I was healthy enough."

In these days of ferocious defenses and punchless offenses, Brown's anticipated return to the lineup Sunday against the Houston Texans looms large for the Patriots. Down the stretch, a team wants its playmaking veterans to step up, and that's what Brown has done time and time again in his career.

It hasn't been the smoothest of years for Brown, but it's been better for him than for some of his fellow veteran receivers around the league. Yesterday the Buccaneers decided to deactivate Keyshawn Johnson for the rest of the season, Jon Gruden finally having enough of Johnson's constant disruption. As Parcells is to Glenn, though, Charlie Weis and Bill Belichick are to Johnson.

The Bucs can't cut him now and make him available on waivers because they'd take too much of a cap hit, but Johnson could be had in an offseason trade by the Patriots, given their bevy of draft picks, though it would be contrary to the New England philosophy to give up a high pick for a receiver over the age of 30.

When one hears about Johnson's antics, and those of Glenn and Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in the past, one has a greater appreciation for Brown.

Brown is the anti-Keyshawn.

He could have made a fuss about not being active Sunday, but he didn't, complying with the wishes of the organization even though he was probably upset.

When he doesn't "get the damn ball," he doesn't go over to the sideline and berate the coaching staff or get in the head coach's face like Johnson. If Brown doesn't get the ball, he takes it like a man. And really, when the Patriots don't throw him the ball, it's their loss.

For while sophomores Deion Branch and David Givens and freshman Bethel Johnson have added depth and overshadowed Brown a tad, it's obvious the offense works best with Brown.

Maybe sometime down the road, Brown will go the way of other Patriot veterans who wanted to spend their entire career here only to be cut as part of the more businesslike approach the Patriots have taken in recent years.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said at a recent symposium at Suffolk University that because the salary cap is so strict and has to be managed so prudently, the days of management acting with its heart instead of its head are over.

That doesn't mean he wants to part with the Troy Browns. Brown, 32, should be a Patriot for as long as he wants to be. Popular players have come and gone the past few years -- Curtis Martin, Lawyer Milloy, Ben Coates, and Drew Bledsoe -- and this head-over-heart approach has won a Super Bowl.

But while Bledsoe, Milloy, Coates, and Bruce Armstrong all received big money, Brown always has been somewhat underpaid. His last contract, which seemed more suited for a No. 2 or 3 receiver than a No. 1, is up at the end of next season, when Brown's compensation (with salaries and bonuses) is expected to be $3.5 million while his cap number will rise from $2.45 million to $5.146 million.

Certainly, injuries have cropped up the past two years and limited his overall effectiveness. In '02, Brown caught 97 passes basically playing on one leg for much of the season. This year, he has 27 catches for 342 yards, but one of his two touchdowns -- an 82-yard strike from Tom Brady -- was a game-winner in overtime against Miami. He also had a big 58-yard touchdown pass from Brady in the Tennessee win.

The big-play mechanism that is often released inside Brown's being is still there. The young whippersnappers might be in vogue, forging their own identity and making their own path through the NFL. But when Brady needs a big play, Brown is still the best-suited to get it done.

In Denver, Brown was hobbling in a game he probably should not have played. That night, his streak of 62 games with a catch ended, something that was lost in the euphoria of a 30-26 win.

But last Sunday he seemed ready to go, only to be told he was being held back.

The Patriots have missed Brown's effective route running and his uncanny ability to get open. They have missed his breakaway ability on punt returns. Throughout his career, Brown has been able to improve the Patriots offense with his ability to get them into good field position with his returns. In the championship season, Brown led the NFL in punt returns. It seems that since then, there's always talk about whether Brown will relinquish his return duties, but he always resists it.

Teams love players who understand crunch time, who step up when it's needed most, particularly a receiver who knows how to get open when the coverage is tight.

Against Dallas, Givens had one of the moments, a 57-yard reception on an underthrown ball to set up the Patriots' only touchdown. Givens has studied Brown a great deal. It was a move Brown would have made. The Patriots offense needs a boost, and even with the signing of 31-year-old J.J. Stokes yesterday, the biggest lift simply would be getting Brown back into the lineup.

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