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Patriots see the light: Stokes thrown into fire

FOXBOROUGH -- J.J. Stokes knew he was on the way out the door about two minutes before he was ready to go on the field. That's what it means to have real NFL experience.

The latest addition to the Patriots wouldn't actually leave Jacksonville for another eight weeks, but the nine-year veteran had seen enough to know what the future held for him with the Jaguars by the fourth week of the season. It held nothing.

"When Byron Leftwich went in [as the Jaguars' starting quarterback], they put in three young receivers, too," Stokes said yesterday in the midst of his second full day of work in New England after being signed to replenish its depleted receiving corps. "That was the week I grasped what was up. We were playing Houston and two minutes before the kickoff someone came up and told me they were going to rotate the wide receivers. I had been starting every game up until that day.

"When you see a lot of young players who were not playing before playing, you get what's going on from the get-go."

What was going on was that soon the former San Francisco 49ers first-round draft choice would be asked to get going, which happened last week after the Jaguars claimed former Cleveland Browns wideout Kevin Johnson off waivers. To make room for Johnson, somebody had to get going.

"I was the odd man out," explained Stokes, 31, who caught 327 passes in eight years in San Francisco, averaging 40 receptions and 3.7 touchdowns a season before signing with the Jaguars as a free agent in the offseason. "They decided to go young. You could see it coming. The young guys were playing more and the old guys were playing less."

Because of that, Stokes will now be playing for a team that is winning a whole lot more than the one he just left.

Stokes is not in New England to be a star. Instead, he is insurance and a big target on a team that has been decimated with injuries at wide receiver with David Patten on injured reserve, Troy Brown consistently limping, and David Givens seeming to get nicked and dented almost as many times as he makes a reception. At one point against Dallas last Sunday night, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had the services of only three healthy receivers -- Deion Branch and rookies Bethel Johnson and Jamin Elliott. Not wanting to repeat that possibility Sunday in Houston, the Patriots brought Stokes back on Monday -- after auditioning him last Friday -- and signed him Tuesday to immediately begin trying to teach a relatively old dog some relatively new tricks.

"I'm trying to learn the system," said Stokes, who had 13 catches in three starts in Jacksonville before his release. "I had a crash course yesterday. I was in at 8 a.m. and didn't leave until 8:30 p.m. I'll leave tonight when the coaches leave. Or later.

"I'm trying to absorb as much as I can. Once I get the terminology down and learn where to line up I think I'll be fine. But what they're doing here is completely foreign to me."

Stokes has long been a practitioner of the West Coast offense as it is played in San Francisco. He is used to running short routes designed to produce big yardage, which is similar in some ways to New England's passing game. But the language is not, and after having been used only sparingly for the past two months, there are timing issues as well as schematic ones that must be dealt with over the next three days if he is to be of help against the Texans.

In a sense, one could say, Stokes is readying himself to pick up where he left off. His career was put on hold as he prepared to play the Texans and now it will be reconnected against them Sunday if he can learn enough between now and then to convince Weis and coach Bill Belichick that he knows where to go and how to get there.

"We're a little thin at receiver and J.J. is a guy who's had some production in the league," Belichick said. "We'll put him in there and see what he can do in our system. A player has to earn game playing time in practice. We can't put anyone on the field until we're sure they know what they're doing."

One thing they know Stokes won't do is follow the lead of his former teammate, the histrionic Terrell Owens. When Stokes first got to San Francisco he was a bit surprised at the level of discourse going on between the Niners' receivers and their quarterbacks, but it was raised to a cacophonous level after Owens got into the starting lineup several years later.

As Owens's stature grew so did his demands, which led to numerous public explosions directed at then-head coach Steve Mariucci and starting quarterback Jeff Garcia. While Stokes admits to having had a moment or two of his own, nothing he did could compare with Owens in the area of well-expressed neediness for the football.

In the end, Owens became a star and Stokes became a guy considered a disappointment by many in San Francisco, who felt he never lived up to his billing after being the Niners' No. 1 choice in 1995. The more Owens complained, the more he got the ball. The more he got the ball, the less Stokes saw it.

"It was time for me to get out of San Francisco," Stokes said of his salary cap inspired venture into free agency. "Some people said I was an underachiever. That was their opinion but I thought it was a lot of mumbo jumbo. The fact is I wasn't a receiver who complained every time I didn't get the ball. I didn't see quite as many as those guys but that's not my fault. All I can do is get open. If I'm open and don't get the ball there's nothing I can do."

The knock on Stokes was that he didn't work hard enough, especially in the offseason, to get open and hence never blossomed into the receiver the Niners had hoped he'd become. The way Stokes recalls it though, one of his problems was he was not willing to change his personality to convince his quarterback to launch more footballs in his direction.

"Looking back at it, I think I would have gotten more balls [if he had taken Owens's approach] but I've never been someone who's loud," Stokes said. "In college I played for Terry Donahue [at UCLA]. You didn't really complain there. You might say something to your position coach but in San Francisco people were cursing out the Coach. It wasn't something I was used to. I was surprised by that. I'm not saying I didn't have a couple of blowups, but that isn't my style."

What is his style dovetails nicely with what is missing in New England. At 6 feet 4 inches, Stokes is 4 inches taller than New England's biggest receiver (Givens) and a half-foot taller than the unit's average height. What that gives quarterback Tom Brady is a bigger target around the goal line and an experienced player down the stretch who understands how the games from mid-November to the end of the season must be played.

As for J.J. Stokes, his arrival in Foxborough gives him something, too. It gives him a new lease on life with a team that, unlike Jacksonville, is alive and playing for the playoffs rather than simply playing for the future.

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