|Part of the much-maligned receiving corps of 2006, Jabar Gaffney has stuck around to make an impact this season. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - When Patriots receiver Jabar Gaffney squirted into the end zone in the second quarter of the AFC Championship win over the San Diego Chargers, he celebrated his touchdown by writhing in a manner that suggested he was mimicking the "lights out" dance that Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman is known to perform after a big sack.
The gyrations were a mild surprise to his teammates. The soft-spoken Gaffney, who has adopted a low profile throughout his two seasons in New England, was asked what prompted him to do something so demonstrative.
"I had to let them know who I was," said a beaming Gaffney in the locker room after the team had clinched its fourth trip to the Super Bowl in seven years. "I had to introduce myself."
You would think a player who is in the midst of his sixth season in the league would not need to present his credentials, yet Gaffney's road to the Super Bowl has been a circuitous one, beginning with four relatively unfulfilling years with the Houston Texans and a brief stay in Philadelphia in which he never played a down, before he finally got a chance in New England, where the early returns last season were also somewhat tepid.
Gaffney represents a unique distinction that would have sent Dickens scrambling for his inkwell: He was a card-carrying member of the dubious Patriots receiving corps last year that endured the worst of times, as well as the current elite group, which has enjoyed the very best of times.
"It's fine, because we're here now," Gaffney said. "We took a lot of flak last year for what the receivers did or didn't do. Well, I'm still here, making plays."
While New England has gotten into the habit of finding its way to the championship game, this will be the first trip for Gaffney, who joined the team last season as a free agent and assumed his place among the collection of maligned Tom Brady receivers.
When disgruntled Deion Branch, Brady's favorite target, was shipped off to Seattle on Sept. 11, 2006, for a first-round pick, Brady was left to improvise with Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, 35-year-old Troy Brown, and cameos from Chad Jackson. The group not only lacked glamour, it came up short in consistent production as well.
Gaffney joined the fray on Oct. 9 but had no major immediate impact. The receivers scuffled along, in underwhelming fashion. Brady publicly supported his teammates, yet the cry for an upgraded stable of weapons persisted. Gabriel was released on Dec. 11, allowing Gaffney a chance to earn extra snaps.
He came to life in the postseason, snagging 8 passes for 104 yards in a 37-16 first-round win over the New York Jets, then submitted a career performance in a comeback win over the Chargers with 10 catches for 103 yards.
Those performances made him the first player in NFL history to record back-to-back playoff games with 8 or more catches for 100 or more yards.
But nobody remembered - or cared. The next week in Indianapolis, the Patriots wilted in a stunning 38-34 loss to the Colts in the AFC Championship. Gaffney caught 3 passes for 37 yards and a touchdown, Brady's only TD pass of the day, but the enduring image of that game was Caldwell making two key drops, prompting even more calls to reinvent the roster of receivers.
Lost in the disappointment of New England's second-half collapse in Indianapolis were Gaffney's postseason totals: 21 catches for 244 yards and 2 TDs. The numbers rang hollow because of the end result.
You know what happened next. The Patriots traded for deep threat Randy Moss and possession receiver Wes Welker. They signed Donté Stallworth, whose specialty was ripping off yards after he caught the ball.
Caldwell was not re-signed. Gabriel was long gone, Brown was injured and began the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, and Jackson, who was also coming off an injury, was relegated to special teams.
Gaffney was the lone holdover standing.
Although he has not been the primary receiver this season, sometimes toiling through an entire game without catching a ball, Gaffney has comfortably settled into his role. He submitted a career-high 5 touchdown catches in 2007 and caught 36 balls for 449 yards.
"I was always sure of myself, even if other people weren't," he said. "It was about getting the opportunity. It's never been about confidence with me."
In November against Philadelphia, Gaffney caught 6 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown in a come-from-behind 31-28 win. The next week against the Ravens, he had just one catch for 8 yards. His role is situational, just like almost everybody else on the roster.
"We take what they give us, and we're fine with it," he explained. "The great thing about being here is, at some point, your number is going to be called."
Gaffney played a critical role in upending the Steelers on Dec. 9 when he grabbed 7 catches for 122 yards (another career high), including a 56-yard touchdown catch, the result of a Brady-lateral-to-Moss-lateral-to-Brady trick play.
He was not asked to do much the first time around against the Giants, but, depending on the adjustments they make (you can bet they will try to do a better job of neutralizing Moss, who had 6 catches for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns against them), Gaffney's snaps could be tweaked yet again. He knows the system, has the physical skills to play in multiple sets, and insists he's not hung up on his personal statistics.
He may catch the winning touchdown pass. He might not catch a ball at all.
That's the Patriot way during these best of times, and Gaffney is just thankful to have the chance to introduce himself to the NFL - again.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist; she can be reached at email@example.com