FOXBOROUGH -- Six plays into the 2005 season, Benjamin Watson was Ben Coates.
Six games after jump-starting the offense with two catches for 55 yards on the opening drive of that win over the Oakland Raiders, Watson was being coated with a paint of disappointment by media and fans with unrealistic expectations.
In that six-game stretch, Watson made only one catch in each of the first five games, then was shut out against Buffalo.
But in the last month, Watson has turned some heads with the only thing most recognize -- numbers. He has 13 receptions in the last four games (at least three catches in each), compared with just eight catches in the first seven games. Not Ben Coates-type numbers -- the tight end had 490 catches and 50 TDs in his nine seasons with the Patriots -- but a nice improvement.
Watson has cranked it up, but that does not mean the next Coates had been coasting, teammate and fellow tight end Daniel Graham says.
''Receptions are just the things people see," Graham said. ''They make judgments on whether you're good or bad, based on whether you make catches. There's more to it than that when you play tight end. We block and we catch, contributing in both aspects of the game."
They also do it from a variety of spots in the Patriots' offense. New England uses one-, two-, and three-tight end sets, with Watson, Graham, and Christian Fauria moving around in formations so much that in a series they could line up in the backfield, in tight end sets, in the slot, or even at wide receiver.
With all that responsibility on his shoulders, it is no wonder Watson went through a production lull. The second-year player from Georgia missed all but the first game of the 2004 season, leaving him as a self-described ''quasi-rookie."
Getting into the flow of a complicated offense, earning the trust of quarterback Tom Brady, and contributing on special teams for the first time had Watson doing a lot of thinking while playing.
''You can't be an effective player until you stop thinking as much and react more," Watson said. ''I feel myself starting to react more. I still have a long way to go before anybody will be satisfied with my play. But I definitely can feel myself progressing.
''The speed of the game has slowed down for me. Any time you're out of something for a while and you come back, everything is happening really fast for you.
''The speed has slowed down now. I'm able to make quicker decisions, I'm able to process all of the calls that Tom makes, and I'm able to recognize things that I've seen before and made a mistake on before. Now I see it again, I can do it right."
Although outside criticism hasn't bothered him, Watson has had to deal with a coaching staff that isn't exactly nurturing when it comes to dealing with mistakes, even if the player is a virtual rookie.
''Positive reinforcement is maybe not always my biggest thing," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
Graham and Fauria have helped Watson.
''Daniel and Christian have been my biggest fans," Watson said. ''They've helped me through everything. Every time I mess up, Daniel says, 'Man, I went through the same thing,' and Christian says the same thing. I look up to those guys, so it's good to know they went through the same thing I'm going through."
And of late, he's coming out of it shining with the potential the Patriots saw in him when they drafted him in the first round in 2004, just two years after taking Graham in the first round. Watson's 20 receptions for 287 yards leads Patriots tight ends.
''Ben's a guy that, in the last month, has really improved his game, all aspects of it -- special teams, blocking, and receiving," Belichick said. ''In fact, [we] talked about it yesterday. I have really been happy with the progress that he's made in the last month or so. Still, there are a lot of things that he can do to be better, but he's doing a lot of things better. Hopefully, it will continue. That's been a real encouraging sign in recent weeks."
A noticeable aspect of Watson's play this season is his penchant for catching balls in almost rapid succession. It started with the two grabs against the Raiders, his only catches of the game.
His three catches against Indianapolis came in the second half, with two on one drive on back-to-back plays. Both of his touchdowns against Miami came in the second half.
All four of his catches (for 66 yards) against New Orleans came in the first half, with three on one drive. His three receptions at Kansas City all came in the first half, on the same drive.
''I seem to get 'em in bunches . . . that's not a bad thing," Watson said. ''It's fine with me.
''It's one of those things that depends on how the flow of the game goes. You really can't control what balls are going to come your way, or if the defender is going to fall down or not, or if they're going to play a certain defense. You can't control all those things. So any time you get balls it's a good thing."
He may not know how accurate that statement is. Of Watson's 20 catches, 13 have come on scoring drives, and of his remaining seven grabs, five were on possessions in which the Patriots advanced inside opposition territory before turning the ball over.
''I think he's come a long way," Graham said. ''This is his first year playing the position, and it's one of the hardest positions to play. I think he's done well, picked up things well and made some big plays out there.
''And he'll make more big plays before he's done."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org