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Football Notes

Gaffney isn't on a 'go' route

Receiver would love to remain a Patriot

By Mike Reiss
January 11, 2009
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Jabar Gaffney knows that a few important things must fall into place - the Patriots have to be interested in him returning, and the contract numbers must add up - but he doesn't hesitate to lay his cards on the table and declare his intentions.

An unrestricted free agent, he has little desire to test the open market if the Patriots make him a strong pitch.

"No. 1 on my list is to get back here. I want to be here," he said. "When I wasn't here, this was the place I wanted to be, so now that I'm here, I'm not going to try to leave."

In an offseason in which the Patriots' moves project to be dictated by their major decision regarding free-agent-to-be Matt Cassel, the 28-year-old Gaffney represents a lower-profile but still significant piece of the puzzle.

Gaffney won't consistently run past defensive backs and command double-teams like Randy Moss, or take a short pass and turn into a Wes Welker-like presence ringing up yards after the catch. What he does requires a closer look to fully appreciate; he's versatile in playing all four receiver spots, he seldom runs the wrong route, and save for a few hiccups (such as this year against the Colts), he most often catches everything in his direction.

Coach Bill Belichick once described him as a tactician.

Playing in all 16 games, Gaffney finished the 2008 season fourth on the Patriots with 38 receptions for 468 yards (12.3-yard average) and two touchdowns. In 2007, again playing every game, he had 36 catches for 449 yards (12.5-yard average) and five touchdowns.

They are statistics that won't lead to a multimillion-dollar Moss- or Welker-like deal, but Gaffney shouldn't undersell himself, either. Because the Patriots run a base three-receiver offense, Gaffney was on the field for 66 percent of the team's plays, fourth-highest among receivers and tight ends.

With more and more teams running three-receiver, spread-the-field attacks, third receivers like Gaffney - and the third cornerbacks who often cover them - are being looked at more like starters. That's something that Gaffney's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is sure to point out if and when the sides meet at the negotiating table.

As for why Gaffney hopes to remain in New England, it traces back to September 2006. After playing the first four years of his career in Houston, he had signed a free agent deal with the Eagles, only to be cut, surprisingly, coming out of training camp. He was without a job for the first four weeks of the season.

"I didn't know why it happened, but I wanted to make sure I was never in that position again," he said.

It was the lowest point of his pro career, but it also led him to New England, where the Patriots were struggling to piece together an effective receiving corps after trading Deion Branch to Seattle. The emergency arrangement has since turned into a fruitful longer-term one for both sides.

"I'm a very religious person and I believe God does things for a reason," said Gaffney. "There's no question it worked out for me, to be able to play alongside a guy like Tom Brady and to have a chance to compete and to win."

Among other things, Gaffney said he enjoys the passion of the region's fan base, playing for Belichick, the "family environment" created by the Krafts, and he feels he's learned from being alongside some of the game's more established players, one of whom is Moss.

"We watch a lot of film together at the stadium, and we always have one or two nights away from the stadium where we get together and watch film," Gaffney said. "He's just such a smart player, which I see from the stuff that he's able to pick out watching film. It's just incredible. It shows me a whole other aspect of looking at tape.

"We'll look at a team, whoever we're playing that week, and he'll say, 'We need to put this in,' and sure enough we'll come back in to the meeting and [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels] will put a play in just like he was talking about. We'll just look at each other and be like, 'Man, that's crazy.' "

As for the season itself, yes, Gaffney still reflects on that costly drop against the Colts, which could have produced a third-quarter touchdown and might have been the difference between a win and loss.

"Of course, I'd love to have that back, it's a catch I make nine out of 10 times, or even 10 out of 10 times, but that was one time that I unfortunately dropped it, for whatever reason," he said. "I still think about it every now and then, but I felt like I bounced back from it."

He also thinks about the loss to the Jets Nov. 13, which was "another game we should have won. If we got the ball first [in overtime], I thought it would have been over."

If those were lowlights, one of Gaffney's highlights was the Dec. 21 rout of the Cardinals, the first-ever game he played in the snow.

There is no snow in Orlando, which is where Gaffney - a proud alum of Florida, recently crowned national champion - retreats for the early parts of his offseason. He plans to spend time continuing to heal his body before transitioning into preparations for the 2009 season.

The Patriots' offseason program traditionally begins in mid to late March, and Gaffney has left his winter jacket behind in hopes of making a return trip to New England.

"Hopefully everything works out and I'm here until I'm finished playing," he said.

Who gets call for Hall?

In their first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, safety Rod Woodson, tight end Shannon Sharpe, and defensive linemen John Randle and Bruce Smith have cracked the final group of 17 that will be under consideration when voters gather in Tampa Jan. 31.

Which of the four has the best chance of being enshrined?

"Bruce Smith is the obvious one," said Dave Goldberg of the Associated Press, one of the voters. "He's the kind of guy that you figure will lead to very little debate, sort of like the time Walter Payton was up. His presenter had a sheet of paper 20 feet long and he unrolled it out to the floor and said, 'These are all his accomplishments, but you don't want to hear them all.' He rolled it up and we went on to the next one. I think Bruce Smith is in that category."

Goldberg also predicts that Woodson, with 72 career interceptions, has "a real good shot."

Eighty percent of the vote is needed for enshrinement (there are 44 selectors). A maximum of six candidates will be enshrined.

Nine other modern-era players are under consideration: receiver Cris Carter; center Dermontti Dawson; defensive end Richard Dent; guard Russ Grimm; defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy; guard Bob Kuechenberg; guard Randall McDaniel; receiver Andre Reed; and linebacker Derrick Thomas.

This is Kuechenberg's last year of eligibility, so his candidacy could pick up some momentum.

Meanwhile, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Buffalo Bills founder/owner Ralph Wilson are also finalists as contributors to the game, while former Cowboys receiver Bob Hayes and former Falcons defensive end Claude Humphrey are this year's Senior Committee candidates.

Durable Kendall is game for more

Play 13 NFL seasons on the offensive line and reach your 35th birthday, and the question inevitably comes up: Are you coming back for another season?

For former Boston College and Archbishop Williams offensive lineman Pete Kendall, the answer is yes. "I don't think I'm ready to go just yet," he said.

Kendall, who started all 16 games for the Washington Redskins each of the last two seasons, will be an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27.

"I had what I thought were some pretty encouraging talks with the coaching staff in Washington before I left," he said. "Nothing has happened with them yet, which is not that big of a cause for concern right now based on where we are on the football calendar.

"I think that I'll be back in Washington, but I don't know that for sure, because nothing is signed and nothing is imminent, either. If not, the market will let me know what it looks like for me."

Kendall has been one of the NFL's more durable linemen over the last decade-plus, starting all 16 games in seven of his 13 seasons. In all, he's played in 190 regular-season games (188 starts).

As for the Redskins' 2008 campaign, Kendall saw promise after the team reached the midpoint at 6-2, but a second-half slide led to an 8-8 finish.

"We won a lot of close games early and lost most of the close games late," he said. "Our defense was so good, so games very rarely got away from us. But we weren't able to score enough points to win games that our defense, for the most part, gave us a chance to win."

Etc.

To-do list for Mangini
A snapshot look at five key issues facing new Browns coach Eric Mangini: 1. Finding better defensive solutions against the run, as the Browns never fixed their problems and finished 28th in rushing yards allowed per game (151); 2. Determining whether former first-round draft choices Braylon Edwards (receiver) and Kellen Winslow (tight end) have the right attitude to be part of the plan; 3. Developing quarterback Brady Quinn and deciding whether quarterback Derek Anderson is part of the future; 4. Addressing the right side of the offensive line, where Kevin Shaffer (tackle) and Rex Hadnot (guard) struggled; 5. Recouping some draft choices, as the Browns have just four picks this season after the previous regime traded away third-, fifth-, and seventh-round selections.

No rush for Crennel
What next for Romeo Crennel? Friends of the former Patriots defensive coordinator and Browns head coach said he is in no rush to line up his next opportunity, a luxury he has because he will still be paid for the remaining three years of the extension he signed prior to the 2008 season. If Crennel coaches next season, which would most likely be as a coordinator or assistant, it would have to be the perfect situation.

Branch's office remains in Seattle
The possibility of a Deion Branch homecoming to New England was squashed by Seahawks president Tim Ruskell last week, when he told reporters that Branch will return to Seattle for a fourth season despite being owed a $4.94 million base salary and counting $7.54 million against the salary cap. Branch signed a six-year, $39 million contract with Seattle prior to the 2006 season, but in part because of injuries, he has averaged just 44 receptions per season. He did come on strong at the end of 2008 - he had 22 receptions and 4 touchdowns over the final five games - which probably factored into the Seahawks' decision.

No contact, just friction
It's a minor part of a much larger story, but here's one aspect of Jeff Jagodzinski's firing from Boston College that puzzled a longtime NFL personnel man: How can an NFL team not call a college athletic director when it is interviewing his coach? The lack of initial contact by Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum was considered poor form.

Dazzling Darren
Chargers running back/return man Darren Sproles, one of the league's smallest players at 5 feet 6 inches, 181 pounds, proved last week that football isn't just a big man's game when he totaled 328 total yards (rushing, receiving, returns) in an overtime win over the Colts. That performance, coupled with Sproles's 139-yard effort against the Patriots in the 2007 AFC Championship game, ranks him second all-time in combined yards in a two-playoff-game span. Sproles, who is a free agent after the season, is earning himself a lot of future dough as a change-of-pace, do-everything type of option.

Position of strength
The deadline for juniors to declare for the NFL draft is Thursday, and it usually significantly alters the crop of players teams will be selecting from come April. Yet even without an influx of underclassmen, the feeling of one general manager is that this was already a good year to be looking for a linebacker. Southern Cal's Rey Maualuga and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis are two of the top seniors at a position that is considered deeper than in past years.

Punter was a linchpin
One leftover from the wild-card round of the playoffs was the value of a top punter. "If it's not for Mike Scifres, I don't think the Chargers win that game," opined Chiefs special teams coach Mike Priefer. "He pinned them in to set up their last field goal to tie the game. If Peyton Manning is out on the 20, with more room to operate, it's probably over. It's the type of play I know defensive coordinators appreciate. You pin someone inside their 5, and it could be the play of the game."

In her own words
Sherry Hill, mother of late Patriots defensive lineman Marquise Hill, has released a book about her son, "The Marquise Hill Story: From the Cradle to the Bowl." The Rankin (Miss.) Ledger reviewed the book and wrote: "The Marquise Hill Story is full of lessons about life and love, triumph and self-discovery. It helps us realize that sometimes the greatest gift we could ever give is of ourselves. That in itself is priceless."

Did you know?
Scoring per game this season was the highest it has been in 43 years. Games averaged 44.1 points, the most since 46.1 in 1965.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

Unfinished business
A breakdown of the league MVPs in the Super Bowl era and how they fared in that postseason.
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