Mark Slough was sitting in his home office on Third Street in Santa Monica, Calif., on March 1, watching the clock tick down the final seconds to the start of NFL free agency, which for agents is like a cross between New Year's Eve and Christmas.
A few minutes after midnight ushered in March 2 back East (just past 9 p.m. Pacific Time), and Slough's phone rang. It was Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli on the other line. He wanted to set up a visit for Sammy Morris. The next day, Morris and his wife, Leslie, were on a plane to New England, where the running back signed a four-year contract with a maximum value of nearly $10 million.
"It's really funny how being quick and prompt makes a huge difference when you know you want to go after somebody," said Slough, who has been Morris's agent since he entered the league. "I got a call from Kansas City and they wanted him
there the next day and I said, 'It's already too late. He's on his way to New England.' They said, 'Well, when he's done in New England, have him come out here.' He never left."
It's no coincidence the 6-foot, 220-pound Morris got the call to replace Corey Dillon as Laurence Maroney's running mate. This wasn't the first time the Patriots had taken a run at Morris, who entered the league in 2000 as a fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills. New England tried to sign him in 2003. Morris's decision came down to the Dolphins or Patriots. He elected to go to Miami on a two-year deal.
His bust-out performance in prime time - 21 rushes for 117 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots' 34-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last Monday night - may have been an introduction to the rest of the nation. However, Pioli and coach Bill Belichick knew what the 30-year-old Morris was capable of because he has spent his entire career playing in the same division as the Patriots. Morris played the previous three years with the Dolphins and the first four years of his career with the Bills.
"Watching Wes [Welker] or Sammy or somebody like that play for Miami, you can see how they play against the other division teams and us and that's a pretty good barometer because we have our guys playing against those same people week after week," said Belichick.
A more-than-capable backup, Morris is the Patriots' leading rusher thus far (54 rushes for 268 yards and three touchdowns) and is averaging 5 yards per carry. He figures to add to his total today, when the Patriots play the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium, especially with Maroney questionable with a groin injury. At that pace, Morris would easily eclipse his best season, which was with the Dolphins in 2004, when he rushed for 523 yards and six touchdowns on a career-high 132 carries.
But numbers don't matter to Morris, who has never played on a playoff team. "I think that is what makes it so special here, is how the guys are really concerned about winning as opposed to 'me and myself,' " said Morris.
Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel pointed out before Morris gashed the Bengals for his second career 100-yard rushing effort that nobody should be surprised at how well he has run, least of all the Patriots, who were victimized by Morris's first career 100-yard rushing effort (25 rushes for 123 yards) last season in a 21-0 loss to Miami.
For Morris, a proud special teams contributor, ability hasn't been the issue; it has been opportunity. Only once has Morris toted the ball more than 100 times in a season.
Last year, when Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown went down, Morris started four of 12 games and finished with 400 yards on 92 rushes, a 4.3-yard average.
"I think he is a really good player," said Fox analyst and former NFL head coach Jimmy Johnson, who resides in South Florida. "When he was thrown into the lineup in Miami, he was productive. When I was coaching, sometimes a player would shine on special teams and then get the opportunity to play, and he was productive on offense or defense. I think Welker is an example of that. I think Sammy is another example of that."
"I think the way people are portrayed I think a lot of that is a media thing, maybe," said Morris. "Or I just haven't had the opportunities or a lot of the notoriety of some other guys, which is fine. Like I said, I know what I'm capable of and I just have to use the opportunity."
Morris received notice for all the wrong reasons last year, when he was forced to sit out the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substance policy. The league said that Morris had tested positive for a banned supplement, ephedra, in 2005. Morris, who vigorously appealed the suspension, said the positive test was the result of using the over-the-counter cold remedy Sudafed.
"The toughest thing for me was having to deal with knowing that people are going to draw conclusions with or without the information," said Morris. "In the end, I know that it's really no business of mine what other people think of me, really, the ones that are just going to kind of just draw their own conclusions regardless of what they hear."
In a way, the suspension benefited Morris in the long run. He was about to sign a long-term deal with the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason of 2006, but when Slough and Morris told Seattle about the possible pending suspension, the Seahawks decided to go in another direction. Morris returned to Miami on a one-year deal, which allowed him to be a free agent and Slough to field Pioli's fateful phone call.
"It's funny, all things work out for a reason and it worked out great because Sammy is thrilled to be where he is," said Slough. "I think people around the league knew his capabilities, but it's just a testament to New England that they identified him as the guy they wanted in that role and their moving quickly secured his services.
"Hats off to Bill and Scott. They did a great job and they did it with all their guys, not just Sammy."
Morris is hoping his relationship with the Patriots is a long-running one.
"When I first signed here, I wanted to contribute in whatever the role that the coaches defined for me," said Morris. "It just feels good to be a part of this, and hopefully, it will keep going."