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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Jackson still has catching up to do

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Each snippet is a glimpse of the future, a forecast of what could be. That's just fine, but the Patriots aren't particularly interested in gazing fondly down the road. They are dealing with the here and now, and all the potential in the world isn't going to get them where they want to go in 2006.

You want definitive answers about receiver Chad Jackson? You will not find them. Not yet. For the first time all season, the rookie was declared sufficiently healed from a hamstring injury to be absent from the team's weekly M*A*S*H report, clearing the way for this startling athletic specimen to prove his worth to this no-frills, no-nonsense football team.

On the fifth play of yesterday's game against the Buffalo Bills, quarterback Tom Brady handed Jackson the ball on a reverse. He jetted 14 yards to the Buffalo 45-yard line for a first down.

Admit it. That got your wheels turning. You started envisioning him as an all-purpose offensive weapon, able to leap over defensive backs to pluck Brady's offerings out of the sky, or outrun linebackers on sneaky sweeps, or return punts with such blazing speed that nobody would touch him streaking up the sideline.

"Every day I come in, I look at him," admitted veteran Rodney Harrison. "I see the size and the speed, and I think, `Oh man.' But you guys know, that's not enough.

"It's up to him what he does with that. It depends on his work ethic, his commitment. I've been watching him. He's working hard. He seems more and more comfortable -- in the locker room, and on the field. That's good.

"We need him."

Oh, do they ever. It has become a tired refrain for Brady and the boys, but it remains as true as it was the day Deion Branch was traded: This offense is still in search of a big-play receiver. The hope is by season's end, the quarterback and his collection of targets will have developed enough chemistry to conjure up "dagger" plays, the kind of long pass routes that slay the opposition, the way a 3-pointer at a critical point of a basketball game can deflate the defense.

Like the play Jackson made in the third quarter, when he found daylight between corner Terrence McGee and safety Ko Simpson, who were in zone coverage. Jackson hauled in a perfect 35-yard strike from Brady, matching the longest throw the quarterback has made all season. That gave New England a 21-3 lead, and all but sealed the win.

"It was a pretty good call by our coaches," Jackson said. "I just tried to slip behind a couple of defenders."

Asked if Brady said anything to him in the huddle before they lined up, Jackson answered, "He just said, `Run fast, run deep.' "

The touchdown was indeed heartening, but it was the only ball Jackson caught all day. Less than one minute after his TD grab, Brady went to him again as he cut across the middle, but Jackson dropped the ball. The QB stopped, then looked away.

In the fourth quarter, with two minutes to go, Jackson lined up on a second-and-19 situation. His assignment was to block a defender, but he whiffed.

Oops.

"A lot of times, the way these young guys look at things is they remember the great things they did, instead of the things they didn't do," Harrison said. "We do a good job around here of saying, `That was nice, but . . .'

"Rookies are inconsistent. It's a sign of his immaturity. He's going to grow."

Jackson, like most first-year players, is rarely seen or heard during the week in Foxborough. Last night, when fielding his first wave of press inquiries, he was asked about the drop.

"The ref got in the way," he claimed.

When his response was met with raised eyebrows, he quickly added, "But I'm a receiver. It's my responsibility to catch the ball."

If he does, Brady will look to him more often. If he doesn't, the quarterback will look elsewhere. Asked to comment on Jackson's potential, Brady responded in Belichickian fashion, avoiding singling the kid out for special mention.

"All the guys are working hard," Brady said. "Everyone is part of the passing game. We don't throw it to one guy, just because."

Jackson insists he understands. He knows he must be patient, must do the little things (like blocking). He knows his toughness has been questioned, and he's aware he's already been compared to a bigger version of Bethel Johnson, who had all the physical gifts but never developed into a complete player.

"I've heard a lot of things said about me," Jackson said, "but I don't pay attention. Once my opportunity comes, they'll see."

Fellow rookie Laurence Maroney talks to his friend three times a day. He believes they will wind up being "the 1-2 rookie punch." He was thrilled when Jackson was summoned onto the field to return a punt in the final quarter, even though his opportunity was lost when the ball sailed out of bounds.

"I tell Chad, `Your time will come, so be ready,' " Maroney said. "He could make a difference for us. A big difference."

Don't speak in absolutes with this young receiver. Not yet. He is talented, and he is flawed. He makes mistakes. The question is how quickly will he learn from them?

When the second wave of reporters checked in with him late yesterday, the question of the dropped ball came up again. A more contrite Jackson answered, "I saw the ref . . . and I saw the ball too late. I should have caught it."

Yes, he should have. But there is always next week. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will look his way again. It's up to Chad Jackson to hold their interest.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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