Well, no, he hasn’t quite been around that long. Kevin Faulk never wore a leather helmet, or even the timeless Pat Patriot logo, at least before retro became the lucrative rage.
But it was a different time and era when he arrived in Foxborough in 1999 as a second-round pick after an exceptional career at Louisiana State. The jerseys were a lighter shade of blue, and for too many of the players who wore them — even eventual championship cornerstones such as Willie McGinest — underachievement was the norm.
Over his 13 seasons, Faulk proved anything but the underachiever. He’s the longest-tenured running back in franchise history, but he was so much more than the position designation suggests. He retires at age 35 as the Patriots’ all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,349), kickoff-return yards (4,098) and is fifth in rushing yards (3,607) and receptions (431).
All of those numbers offer a clue to his extraordinary versatility, but they don’t come close to doing the player justice.
The Patriots have had better players than Faulk, but very few who were better at what they were asked to do. It seemed like every other 5-yard run came on a pivotal third-and-4 situation in which he deked on last linebacker to get that extra yard, and every 8-yard catch happened when they needed seven crucial yards late in the third quarter. He earned those yards, his choppy steps and endless array of dekes compensating for his lack of breakaway speed (he supposedly ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the combine, which was undoubtedly slower than many linebackers he’d eventually leave in the dust).
Faulk was smart, shifty, and clutch, and a player of his size had no business being such an effective blocker, especially on blitz pickup. Feel free to pause here and ponder for the 33d or so time about how the 2008 season might have gone had Faulk not been suspended for the fateful season opener. Chances are Tom Brady would have fewer scars on his knee and cretinous Chiefs fans never would have been introduced to Matt Cassel.
Even now, he probably could have stepped off the dais Tuesday morning, lined up behind Brady, and taken a direct snap to complete a two-point conversion … and it’s a moment he probably would have appreciated given that he still had hopes of playing this season. Last season was his farewell — sort of like Troy Brown’s beloved veteran emeritus status during final season in 2007 — and it perhaps took awhile for him to realize as much. When he did, he Tuesday’s official, warm Bill Belichick Bon Voyage, a salute from the coach on the occasion of retirement given to players he truly admired and appreciated.
There’s something appropriate about the coincidence of Faulk, one of the brightest and most versatile players in franchise lore, officially announcing his retirement the same week the Patriots are preparing to play a Pete Carroll team. Faulk was the last remnant of that frustrating Carroll/Bobby Grier era of regression, one of the few who made it from the 1997-99 drafts.
For a time, it seemed Faulk might be one of those players who, while not a flat-out flop such as Chris Canty, Andy Katzenmoyer or Tony Simmons, probably wouldn’t live up to his draft position. Carroll initially miscast the 5-foot-8-inch Faulk as a potential feature back, a deployment that may not have been egregious as trying to shoehorn Tebucky Jones in at cornerback but certainly indicated a lack of logic in terms of the best way to utilize personnel. Faulk had 10 carries for 17 yards in his first game as a Patriot before journeyman Terry Allen took the majority of the carries the rest of the way.
In a sense, Faulk stands as a lesson in being patient with a young player. Early in his career, he was not trustworthy with the football, fumbling nine times in his first 27 games, including six times in Belichick’s first season here, 2000. In 2001, it was J.R. Redmond who was the Snow Bowl and Super Bowl hero in the role of third-down back, and in 2002 at least one certain idiot columnist suggested Faulk should be cut after he failed to pursue a fumble in a loss to the Packers.
Instead, he stuck around, stopped giving the ball away, found and excelled in his various niches, and became essential, rushing for a career-high 638 yards in 2003 while also catching 48 passes for 440 yards for the Super Bowl champs. It was his finest season, though many more fine ones followed.
Somewhere during that outstanding run that was celebrated Tuesday, the transformation happened. For a time — a different, long-ago time — it seemed like he would be one more Carroll/Grier refugee who wouldn’t cut it as a Belichick player.
Instead, little Kevin Faulk grew into the epitome of one.