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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Woodhead makes chances count
New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead runs into the end zone for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter of their game on Sunday. (US PRESSWIRE)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- IN INTRODUCING Kevin Faulk during a halftime ceremony at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, Robert Kraft said a lot of nice things about the running back who retired last month after 13 seasons as a Patriot - not the least of which was labeling him a champion. But like he might have done with some other honorees, the owner couldn't say there'll never be another like him.
Because the guy who has become very much like him had already scored one touchdown for New England, and was about to score his second.
Danny Woodhead didn't start Sunday's 37-31 win over the Bills, was on the field for just 16 of 72 offensive snaps, and touched the ball only five times. But he found a way to make those opportunities matter, and continued his emergence as one of Tom Brady's primary targets when the Patriots need someone to make a play on the game's most meaningful snaps - filling precisely the role that made Faulk a hero in these parts and led him to that podium on Sunday.
"Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I'm going to do," Woodhead said after the first two-touchdown game of his career. "If it's blocking, if it's playing special teams, if it's running or catching, I'm a football player and that's what I try to be is a football player and to do whatever I'm supposed to do on a particular play to the best of my abilities."
Those abilities are even similar to Faulk's. He's quick. He's elusive. He runs the ball well, especially out of a shotgun set. He catches the ball well. He's a weapon on third down. He's a reliable blocker and blitz protector. He's clutch. He's instinctive. He's smart. And, of course, he's short.
It was the last of those attributes that made him seem like something of a novelty when he came to New England in 2010 as a 5-foot, 8-inch product of Div. II Chadron State who'd been cast off by the Jets. If he passed you on the street, you'd think he was no nearer the NFL than a salesman at the sporting goods store - and, in fact, that's what he passed as in a hidden-camera video that went viral.
Outside Foxborough, there weren't many who saw him as an impactful piece of the Patriots, but only a day after he signed with New England a need arose for the team. Faulk tore the ACL in his right knee during a loss to the Jets, so Woodhead was thrust into action against Buffalo the next week, when he took his second carry 22 yards to the end zone.
"We said, 'The legend is born, you know,' because we saw him that week in practice, what he is capable of doing," Brady said Monday morning on WEEI radio. "And we kept saying why did the Jets release this guy? They had him playing receiver and he was a running back in college. He's just come in and done such a great job. He is the ultimate team player and teammate and dependable, consistent."
He has so earned Brady's trust that in the Super Bowl last season, after getting the ball to the Giants' 33 on the final series of the first half, five of the Patriots' six plays went to Woodhead - including the 4-yard touchdown pass that capped it.
Sunday, it was similar. With the Patriots facing third and 7 at the Bills' 37, Brady found Woodhead for a 15-yard completion. The next play, Woodhead ran for 7 yards. Then he burst up the middle for a 15-yard score.
His other touchdown came on an 18-yard catch, and - not surprisingly - on third down. He would've had another in those same circumstances during the fourth quarter had Brady not short-hopped his throw.
It was clear where the QB wanted to throw: He wanted to go where Faulk would've been a few years earlier.
Over the last 11 of those years, Faulk was never the Patriots' primary back - just as Woodhead isn't now. But like his predecessor was long the lead voice among New England's runners, Woodhead is now the elder statesman.
And he's filled that role vacated by Faulk, too.
"Phenomenal, man," Ridley said. "That's the leader in our room and Woody does it all. He runs well, he catches well, he's a threat for the defenses. They've got to find the little short guy out there somewhere, but most of the time he's making plays and it's too late. My hat's off to Woody for leading our room and doing it strong."
Doing it in the versatile, reliable, accountable way that Patriots fans came to learn and love with Faulk. That defines the best of what the Patriots have been about for the past decade-plus.
And that, thanks to Woodhead, Brady and the Patriots' offense has still never been without.
The Patriots held the New England Punt, Pass and Kick competition at Gillette Stadium prior to Sunday's game - and crowned a couple of champions from New Hampshire. Rachel Gardner of Stratham won the 12-13-year-old girls' category, and Katie Day of East Kingston was the champion of the 14-15-year-old girls' division. Their scores will be compared to other winners from around the country to determine who advances to the national competition.
Winners were honored on the field during a timeout in the action, when they each received a commemorative football from hall of famer Andre Tippett.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.