SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - He is still here, running on demand, catching those devilish screen passes when Tom Brady is under pressure, playing the role of obstinate blocker and covering his quarterback's backside when some fire-breathing defender strafes across on the blitz.
Come to think of it, is there anything Kevin Faulk doesn't do, or hasn't been able to master?
"Punting and kicking" said the Patriots' all-purpose back, breaking into a laugh yesterday morning. As for anything else, bring it on for the pride and power of Louisiana State. Faulk, now 31, has three Super Bowl rings tucked away neatly in his Foxborough memento box. In all those championships, he has never been the centerpiece of the offense, but he often has been its most critical and versatile component, seemingly forever coming up with crucial plays.
Witness the recent win over San Diego for the AFC championship. Brady twice called on Faulk for key plays on the clinching drive. Early on, on third and 11, Faulk slipped by defensive back Eric Weddle to grab a Brady toss, then hit the ground and rolled for the first down. Three plays later, on third down again, Brady tossed to him for 14 yards - a play that put the ball on San Diego's 42, and took the charge right out of the Chargers.
Sometimes, his spatial awareness is so keen on the field, it's as if Faulk is wearing special lenses that allow him to see the computer-generated stripe that tells TV viewers the yardage needed for first down.
"Little things. That's one of 'em," said Faulk, noting that the coaching staff preaches attention to detail. "Every time you come in the game, you are supposed to know the down and distance. That's just a cardinal rule in our huddle . . . you better know down and distance once you get in the game."
Faulk, somewhat contrary to his image of being a "third-down" back, was in the game more than any other New England running back this season. He lined up for 44 percent of the plays from scrimmage, a healthy margin over Laurence Maroney (30 percent) and Heath Evans (21). Of course, Faulk's hands typically have as much to do with his being back there as his legs.
"My job every day consists of catching and running," he said. "I've been catching and running my whole career. It's something I have to do. It's my job. If I don't do it, somebody else might be called to do it - that's how I look at it."
Faulk, selected 46th overall in the 1999 draft, was one of 17 running backs selected that year, including first-round star Edgerrin James. Nine NFL seasons later, he is the only one to remain with the club that drafted him.
"I consider myself blessed," he said, "to have the same head coach [Bill Belichick] for the last eight years, and pretty much the same system to go through. It just makes it so much more comfortable for me to be in the same offense - to understand the game, to hear the same terminology for the eight or nine years you've been in the league, it helps out."
The start, though, was slow, and not without its, shall we say, fits and quirks. Upon arriving in his first New England training camp, Faulk had much to learn about ball protection and blocking, specifically how to protect his QB on the blitz. In high school and college, Faulk ran the ball successfully, never much concerned about anyone taking the ball out of his hands. And blocking?
"None," said Faulk, reflecting on his LSU days. "None at all."
Kirby Wilson, the Pittsburgh Steelers running backs coach, was Faulk's first tutor in New England. The standard NFL approach might have been for someone with Faulk's multiple skills to choose - be a runner, or be a receiver, master one rather than muddle both.
"But Kevin is smart and he's talented," said Wilson, speaking by telephone last night from Pittsburgh. "I think most people saw [that he would have to choose one over the other]. But Kevin didn't see it that way, and as it turned out, he was absolutely correct. He had a gift. He persevered with it, survived . . . and he thrived."
Faulk listened to what Wilson preached. Hold that ball high and tight, Wilson told him. And in passing schemes, when not asked to catch the ball, always be aware of picking up the blitz.
"I quickly embraced it," said Faulk, referring specifically to the blocking. "Because if I didn't quickly embrace it, I wouldn't be here. You know, I am still learning to block."
Ball protection was slightly more tricky, and painful. In his first two seasons, Faulk was plagued by fumbles, some of them excruciating and costly.
"We started with the basics," said Wilson, who still uses some of Faulk's first-year tapes, learning to master ball carrying and blocking, as a teaching tool. "It's all about the ball as a running back. And No. 1, it's about understanding the things that lead to a fumble. Kevin took it to heart, all of it, and this success is all on him."
Faulk, according to safety Rodney Harrison, is the "Swiss Army knife" of the Patriots. The multipurpose back lives by a mantra akin to the iconic tool.
"Well, my role was pretty much the same coming in here," said Faulk, thinking back to his arrival some nine years ago, just before the good times began to roll. "Do whatever had to be done to help the team win. And if it's something I've never done before, I'll work to make it the best, make it 100 [percent] - make it look like it's supposed to look."
Sounds about right. Looks pretty good, too.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.