Patriots’ Throwback Thursday: Troy Brown saves the 2004 season

Remember when Troy Brown prevented disaster in 2004 by playing on the other side of the ball as a cornerback?

Troy Brown held the New England Patriots together in 2004 like no one else could have. They really should make a movie about him, or find some special way to honor him in Canton, although for some reason the NFL finds it difficult to honor team players who have won a Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to get a bust in Canton for putting up fantasy football points rather than being the ultimate team player.

But before setting the scene for 2004, at which time Brown was 33 years old and winding down a fantastic career, consider that he had already had a number of roles on the team. As an eighth-round pick from Marshall University in 1993 (so low they don’t even have an eighth round anymore!), he had gotten his start on special teams, returning both kickoffs and punts and contributing in coverage. Initially he was used as the extra receiver in multiple wideout sets, and was not a full-time starter until his seventh year in the league.

He made the Pro Bowl in his eighth year. But after hitting his peak at age 30, his yardage totals started to decline. Even so, he was a very valuable player. He could split out wide, play in the slot, and contribute in a multitude of ways on special teams.

That brings us to the 2004 season which had started off with a Patriots’ winning streak, but by the midway point in the year it looked like they might be toast. Starting cornerback Tyrone Poole injured his knee in Week 6. But an even larger disaster awaited in Week 7 when All-Pro corner back Ty Law went down for the season with a foot injury.

The Patriots had Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, both of whom were capable players, but there was no depth.  Sure enough, the unbeaten streak came to a decisive end the very next week, as Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers torched the Patriots in the first half, and then ground out a second half victory by a score of 34-20. If ever there was a team ripe for a collapse, it would be this version of the Patriots.

Next on the schedule was the St. Louis Rams and Mike Martz, a replay of Super Bowl XXXVI, which had served as a textbook case of a highly creative defensive coach in Bill Belichick, against an incredibly versatile offensive coach in Mike Martz, with Belichick and the Patriots dealing the Rams a stinging upset.

This was the first rematch since the Super Bowl, and there was still additional adrenaline from that game. Martz still had weapons with Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and depth receivers Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis. Martz was still king of the run-and-shoot, multiple wide receiver formation, and the perfect mastermind to dismantle a short-handed, weakened Patriots secondary.

To make matters worse, on the second Rams offensive play in the first quarter, Asante Samuel left the jam with a shoulder injury. Who in the world would place him? In trotted a new cornerback. Oddly, he was wearing Troy Brown’s number 80. Did they cut Brown and replace him with a new cornerback? No, that really was Troy Brown playing cornerback!

Holy kazoo, Troy Brown, at age 33, was a rookie cornerback. Was this a joke, or a Belichick mind game? Joke or not, he was immediately tested, making a tackle on the great Marshall Faulk.

Brown proved to be amazingly proficient at cornerback and nearly picked off quarterback Marc Bulger a few times. Bulger’s main order of business was staying alive, as he was sacked five times and under pressure throughout the game. Brown contributed some additional tackles and was good in coverage.

In the third quarter, the demoralized Rams forgot to cover Brown on a field goal attempt. Apparently, they were so mesmerized by his performance as a cornerback that they forgot he could still catch footballs, so kicker Adam Vinatieri threw a perfect spiral to Brown for the kicker’s only touchdown pass in his brilliant career. Statheads may note that Vinatieri’s lifetime passer rating is higher than Tom Brady’s, based on that play.

On the ensuing possession, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel dialed up a zone blitz for the Rams to decipher. Few teams would dare to run a zone blitz versus the speedy Rams, in which the defense sends the cornerbacks to blitz the passer, while leaving a mismatch, for example, a linebacker like Willie McGinest to cover speedster Torry Holt. But that’s exactly what the Patriots did. The trade-off is whether the quarterback can find the mismatch in 1.5 seconds or less and deliver an accurate pass to the right location. In this case, Bulger did not quite have enough time for an accurate chuck, and linebacker Willie McGinest tipped the ball to Roman Phifer for an interception.

When the smoke cleared, the Rams vaunted offense was blasted into rubble. Incredibly, the Patriots won that game 40-22.  Scoring 40 points against the Rams was perhaps not that astonishing, but holding the pass-happy Rams to 22 points while down three cornerbacks was incredibly unlikely.

The party continued the next week, when Brown was reunited with his old quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, who was now with the Buffalo Bills. Bledsoe was so happy to see Brown that he threw him a completion in the fourth quarter, for old time’s sake, for Brown’s first NFL interception.

Brown took more and more snaps as the season went on, and by the end of the year, he had three interceptions, equal to the combined total of Samuel (one) and Gay (two). Brown was credited with five passes defended; Samuel had 12 and Gay had six. Brown had 17 tackles. In short, he plugged a much-needed hole in the defensive backfield.

The Patriots finished 14-2 that season and had to face the Steelers, the team that whopped up on that so badly after losing both starting cornerbacks, one more time in the playoffs. This time, they picked off Roethlisberger three times, including a pick-six by Rodney Harrison.

Brown continued to contribute in the Super Bowl, playing both ways.

NFL Films has a series on the Top-10 Patriots of All Time on YouTube, which justifies why Brown belongs among the top seven Patriots of all time. You can see 2004 footage from Brown’s defensive debut vs the Rams as well as the Bledsoe pick. Also shown are the 2001 scoop and lateral play of a blocked kick against Pittsburgh that propelled the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI in addition to the strip and fumble of Marlon McCree of the Chargers that prevented San Diego from knocking the Patriots out of the playoffs in 2006.

Brown was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2012. You would tend to believe that number seven on a historically dominant team should be a strong candidate for the NFL Hall of Fame.

However, advocates must concede that he’s not among the top stat accumulators of all time. The NFL Hall of Fame, like it or not, tends to reward the top statistical leaders at different positions, So, while quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers are disproportionately represented, there’s probably not going to be much of a boost for playing defensive back, special teams, and switching positions to help your team win a Super Bowl. Like it or not, that’s not the way that the system works.

Nevertheless, if not via the Hall of Fame’s membership roster, surely there should be some way of recognizing special contributions that help teams win championships. The Super Bowl would likely not have happened without the coaches and Brown himself believing that it was possible for a 33-year-old punt returner and wide receiver to become an NFL-caliber cornerback. That just requires miles and miles of foresight, innovation, heart, and guts.

Since 2020, Brown has been back with the Patriots as an assistant coach responsible for running backs and kick returners. There couldn’t be anyone better to handle those positions given his admirably versatility that helped shape the Patriots’ dynasty.