JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 3 -- It was only the second week in training camp, but cornerback Ty Law was needling the offensive coaches that he'd have no problem lining up at wide receiver and catching passes. Wide receiver Troy Brown stepped up and insisted that if he played cornerback, no pass would be completed if anyone dared throw in his direction.
"It had become kind of a joking thing," Brown recalled.
Injuries forced Pats' Troy Brown, here defending Indianapolis wide receiver Brandon Stokley, into playing defensive back.
(Brian Snyder -- Reuters)
But it was no laughing matter when Patriots secondary coach Eric Mangini came up to him in late July and told him to start taking a few snaps in practice as the nickel defensive back just as a precaution.
As it turned out, that early experiment turned out to be one of the more farsighted moves of the season by the Patriots' coaching staff. Both starting cornerbacks, Law and Tyrone Poole, went down with knee injuries and are unable to play Sunday in the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles.
On Nov. 7, second-year cornerback Asante Samuel, by then a starter, had to leave a game against the St. Louis Rams because of an injury, and Brown came in as a defensive back for the first time since he had briefly played the position early in his career at Marshall University in the late 1980s.
"Asante got hurt, and there was a TV timeout," Brown said. "We're in St. Louis, playing on their rug with those receivers they've got, and they told me to go in. Yeah, it was kind of scary. I was a little nervous. A play or two later, they came after me. I don't think they expected to see number 80 in there playing defense. But I kind of expected it. I did all right, I guess. We won the game, right?"
The Patriots have won a lot of games down the stretch with Brown playing offense, defense and more than occasionally returning punts, just as he'll be expected to do Sunday. The Patriots usually line him up against the slot receiver, and because Philadelphia moves its receivers around, he may even face Eagles Pro Bowl wideout Terrell Owens.
Brown hasn't been the Patriots' only multipurpose player. Linebacker Mike Vrabel has caught two touchdown passes as a tight end in goal-line situations. Defensive lineman Dan Klecko played fullback in short-yardage situations before being injured, and defensive end Richard Seymour also was used in that spot. Linebacker Don Davis has played safety. But Brown has been the most visible.
In the game after his defensive debut against the Rams, Brown intercepted his first pass against Buffalo, becoming the first player in Patriots history to have a reception and an interception in the same game. He finished the regular season with three interceptions, knocked down five passes and had 17 tackles, 15 solo.
With starting wide receiver Deion Branch healthy, Brown, who had 101 catches in 2001 and 97 in 2002, likely will spend more time on defense than offense Sunday, and that's fine with him. He had 17 receptions this season and has been far more valuable on the other side of the ball, particularly later in the season.
"I guess [Coach] Bill [Belichick] wanted to make sure he had enough people," Brown said of the decision to turn him into a three-way player. "You can only take 45 guys into a game. It's impossible to take 35 defensive guys and 11 offensive guys and vice versa. You've got to be prepared for every situation. You know Bill, he's the ultimate guy when it comes to being prepared, and he was prepared for that situation."
Said Belichick: "In camp, we felt we needed more depth at the inside corner position, and because of Troy's skills on offense, he was a natural to hook into that situation on defense. He has good upper-body strength, very good quickness, and those are the same qualities you want whether it is a slot corner or a slot receiver. He's a tough kid, a good tackler, smart, so we felt all those qualities would be conducive to looking at him there. Sometimes when you try a player at a new spot, you walk off the field after a day or two and say there's no way this will work out, it's a waste of time, and we need to move on. That was never the case with Troy."
Brown's teammates almost immediately started calling him "Slash," the nickname pinned on former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart when he first came into the league as a short-yardage quarterback, running back and wide receiver. They still tease Brown occasionally.
"He's a football player," safety Rodney Harrison said. "He's not limited. He's playing better at nickel than 80 percent of the nickel guys in the league. You've got guys out there making a couple of million bucks a year just playing third downs, and he's doing it playing offense, defense and special teams."
Brown, an eighth-round draft pick in 1993, will be one of only four Patriots to have played in the franchise's past four Super Bowls. His days as the primary wide receiver are probably over, but he insisted he has never thought about making a permanent switch to defense and won't address that possibility at least until after Sunday.
For most of the last three months, he has been pulled in several directions during practices, taking his cue from coaches as to which meetings -- offense or defense -- to attend, which drills to participate in, which unit to work with during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 sessions. When most players have left the team facility, Brown stays well into the evening for extra film work and study with Mangini.
"I've got the offense pretty much down," he said. "But the defense takes a lot of time because we have so many of them, and there are so many different calls. . . . I had to start taking better care of myself, getting more rest and spending more time at the stadium than I have just to get ready."
Brown admitted he loves to hear people describe him as "the ultimate Patriot."
"I did it because they needed me to do something I hadn't done, and I was willing to step up and do it," Brown said. "I wanted to be an example to a lot of the players on this team. This is what Patriots football is all about. . . . What better way to send a message to your football team about how we play around here than to have one of your better players switch over to defense? It sends a message the guy is not selfish, he's been around a long time, and he stepped up when his team needed him."