Patriots

In Appreciation of the Big Fella: Vince Wilfork’s Return to Health and Form Has Been Huge

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Contrary to what the recent sequel in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of entertaining propaganda films on “The U” might suggest, the most talented football team that Vince Wilfork ever played on was not in fact the 2001 Miami Hurricanes.

Those famous and infamous ‘Canes were stacked — 17 members of that team were first-round picks, including Wilfork, Andre Johnson, Ed Reed, Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey, Sean Taylor and Kellen Winslow II. It might be the greatest collection of pure talent in college football history.

Though Taylor died tragically and much too young and Winslow is now a cyclist (an unexpected sporting passion for a self-appointed soldier), that roster probably could have won the NFC South this year.

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But of course that is not the greatest team Wilfork, the Patriots’ 11th-year defensive tackle, has ever played for. It was a college team, after all, and one with Ken Dorsey — a bright, noodle-armed amalgam of predecessors Steve Walsh and Gino Torretta — at quarterback no less.

The greatest team Wilfork has played for probably is the first one he played for in the NFL — the 2004 Patriots, who went 14-2 in the regular-season, bounced the yappy Steelers and Peyton Manning’s cut-that-meat Colts in the playoffs, then edged the Eagles by a field goal in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Those Patriots were loaded, with Tom Brady still ascending to ridiculous heights, Corey Dillon contributing more than 1,600 yards rushing, and a defense that overcame an injury to Ty Law due to the still-thriving veteran core of Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and of course, Earthwind Moreland.

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You may have noticed that I said ’04 is probably the greatest team for which Wilfork has played. I add the qualifier out of respect for the 2007 Patriots, which was one lousy last-minute plot twist from securing the status as the best team in pro football history.

I say the ’04 team is better because they came home with the Lombardi Trophy. I suspect that is a consensus opinion. But 18-1, as disappointing as that last digit is, remains a remarkable feat, even if the last piece of business was left unfinished.

Looking at what Wilfork has accomplished — and the players with whom he’s accomplished impressive things — is a reminder that he’s had a distinctive and interesting career. Forget another episode of “The U” — Wilfork will make for a fun “A Football Life” topic on his own someday. But any forays into sentimentality and nostalgia about his career are premature, for he has some unfinished business himself.

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I’m not sure whether this should strike us as remarkable or if it should come as no surprise at all given that the violent demands of the game guarantee that even successful NFL players often have abbreviated careers, but to me it leans toward the former: There are only two players on the current Patriots roster who have won a Super Bowl with the franchise.

Tom Brady, obviously.

And Wilfork.

The deeper the Patriots go into the postseason — and no, I’m still not sweating the Ravens — the more discussion there will be about a topic that is usually rattling around in the back of our minds anyway: Is this the year that Brady and Bill Belichick win that elusive fourth Super Bowl together and essentially secure their place as the most accomplished quarterback/coach combo in NFL history.

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It’s a fascinating and natural storyline, and should the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year — a real possibility given that this is probably the most well-rounded roster they’ve featured since ’04 — we’ll also have another team to add to the discussion and debate about the best in franchise history.

I do hope we get to have such post-championship-winning conversations in between the confetti falling in Arizona and the duck boats firing up in Boston. But before the journey begins, it seems appropriate to acknowledge that other man left standing from the last Patriots champions. Because while Wilfork’s pursuit of his second ring might not be as compelling as Brady’s pursuit of his fourth, it’s a quest certainly worth rooting for, especially given what he went through to get to this position.

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So many things went right for the Patriots this season. Darrelle Revis was as dominant as a Patriots as he was in his Jets heyday — it is not an exaggeration to say his presence singlehandedly brought the defense to a different level. Rob Gronkowski threw helpless, hapless defensive backs out of the club all season, and most importantly, he remained healthy. Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower simultaneously developed into superb playmaking linebackers. In-season acquisitions such as Akeem Ayers fit seamlessly. Tom Brady was not sold to the Toronto Argonauts after a so-so (by his standards) first month.

With so many good things happening around him, Wilfork’s comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon that cost him the final dozen games last year was almost overlooked. Perhaps that’s not surprising — for a player so imposing, his contributions have sometimes been easy to miss.

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His job is essential, but it’s also fairly basic and devoid of flash: Tie up blockers, plural. Hold your ground. Crush anything that runs headlong into your torso.

He’s done the job well enough to make five Pro Bowls. But his work, save for the occasional Air Wilfork field-goal block against the Jets or game-sealing interception against the Raiders, is not the sort of thing that tends to make the highlight reels.

It’s been easy to overlook that the likelihood of a player at Wilfork’s age (34) and size (he’s listed at 325 pounds, a conservative listing considering he’s built like a 1960s commercial icebox) fully regaining his form after that particular injury did not seem promising. But there he was this year, doing his defensive fulcrum routine again, and doing it without missing even a single game or ever suffering from debilitating foot numbness.

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It’s been a hell of a comeback, worthy of our appreciation and acknowledgment. And should this season end with a championship, well, we’ll leave it to Wilfork to tell us whether this is the best team he’s ever played for. But it’s hard to imagine that any season in his stellar career — yes, college included — would be as fulfilling.

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