FOXBOROUGH -- He has always done whatever they've wanted. Troy Brown has run back kickoffs, returned punts, caught passes. He has been the primary receiver, a decoy, a spot rusher. He has been asked to be a team leader, then asked to take a step back and be a team player.
Lately, Brown has been asked to roam the secondary, then quickly line up as a receiver when the ball changes hands. Naturally, this remarkable development has generated a fair amount of buzz in the NFL.
Troy Brown is playing two ways. Isn't that fun?
No, it's not. It's work. Strip away the novelty, and it's exhausting and physically taxing and sometimes you wonder if the whole thing doesn't border on the absurd. Who becomes a defensive back after 12 years in the league? Troy Brown is 33 years old and has been wrestling with a host of injuries for most of the season. He's banged up, yet he's logging time all over the field, in all sorts of roles. You know better than to ask what is ailing him specifically. That's classified information. Suffice to say when Brown receives treatment, it doesn't take minutes. It takes hours.
"I'm sore all over," Brown confessed. "I'm tired. But it's football season. Someone's got to play."
He always wants to be that someone. His receiver duties have diminished, so he's happy to recoup some of that field time on defense. He debuted defensively against the Greatest Show on Turf and immediately exhibited some heady, instinctive skills. Above all, the sensible Brown did not fall prey to eagerness, which means he minimized the one thing coach Bill Belichick hates most: dumb mistakes.
Belichick saluted his redoubtable veteran, but then simultaneously stressed Brown is merely meeting the criteria expected of him.
"It takes a special guy to do what he is doing," Belichick said. "There is no question about that. But he is doing what he's supposed to be doing. Whatever the coverage is, he's trying to play it, and should be trying to play it, the way it's supposed to be played. That is what his job is when he is out there on defense, or on offense, for that matter."
For close to three seasons now, wise guys in the press have been predicting Brown's demise. The theory goes something like this: The Patriots are phasing him out, choosing to highlight younger, quicker, and (in some cases) bigger targets. Sometime soon, his salary will be too much to carry, even if he offers to redo it again, like he did before this season. And then New England will release him.
"I'm sure that could be the plan," Brown said yesterday. "But I'm trying not to make it easy for them. I'm going out there every day trying to make the coaches' jobs really hard."
He has been operating as if his career hung in the balance for every season of his long and distinguished career. When you are an eighth-round pick from a small school (Marshall) who gets cut, signed, released, then signed again, nothing ever seems certain, even after more than 5,500 career yards and a trip to the Pro Bowl.
"I've felt this way my whole career," Brown said. "I approach training camp as if I'm trying to win a job. I hang my hat on being available to make plays."
He has always found a way to do that, first with Drew Bledsoe throwing him the ball, then with Tom Brady. Defensively, he figured, it would just be a matter of time before he made a difference there, too. His first interception of his brief defensive career came last week against Buffalo and Bledsoe, one of his closest friends in the game.
"It was really a bittersweet moment for me," he said. "I've got to do what I've got to do for my football team. That was my first interception -- ever. My first reaction was to be really excited. I was jumping up and down and celebrating with my teammates.
"But then all of a sudden I remembered it was Drew [who threw it]. By the time I got to the sidelines I was thinking, `I hope he's not feeling too bad about it. I hope there's not too much emphasis put on it.' "
Brown became the first player in Patriots history to record an interception and a reception in the same game. There's a reason he was the first. Hardly anyone plays both ways anymore, and it's incredibly confusing to keep track of whether you are going or coming.
"I almost screwed up against Buffalo," Brown admitted. "After the interception, I'm sitting on the bench with all the defensive guys enjoying the moment, and I'm supposed to be on the field with the offensive guys."
There is no telling how long his two-way duties will be required. Injured cornerback Tyrone Poole is improving daily, although it's unlikely he'll return for Monday night's game against Kansas City. As for Brown's receiving responsibilities, he's acutely aware that David Givens and Deion Branch, when he's healthy, will get the call ahead of him. David Patten is off to a great start (29 catches, 473 yards, 5 TDs) and running back Kevin Faulk has already caught 23 passes. Brown, who was inactive in four of the first six games, has caught just 11 passes for 118 yards.
Brown has also returned just four punts this season, relinquishing that job to Faulk. "I miss it. Whatever they want me to do."
He doesn't know when his career will end, or how -- only that it will. He is convinced that he has already prevented Belichick from cutting him loose at least once because of his attitude, his versatility, his work ethic, and his survival skills. Brown is the consummate Belichick player; someone who puts the team first, and, above all, is consistent. He will continue to make his case for a spot on this football team, whether it's on offense, defense, or special teams.
"It's going to happen to all of us eventually," Brown said. "Each and every player will lose their job, not just here, but throughout the league. When it does happen, hopefully, they'll respect the way I've done things here.
"No matter what happens, I'll never hold a grudge."
Hard to believe it was only three seasons ago that Troy Brown caught 101 passes for 1,199 yards. He ran back two punts for touchdowns that year, and even rushed the ball a few times.
He did whatever they wanted in 2001, when he was a star of the first Patriots team to win a Super Bowl. He'll do whatever they want now, as a two-time champion whose best days are behind him.
Nothing absurd about that.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.