FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For those of you tuning in who are unsurprised by the New England Patriots’ appearance in the Super Bowl but aren’t certain about the specifics, introductions are in order. For all the Patriots’ sustained success — and now, with a seventh AFC championship this century, it is remarkable — there is an uncanny revolving door here.
Meet, then, Chris Hogan. He was a college lacrosse player at Penn State whose career ended in that sport and at that school, so he went to Monmouth and played a year of football. That’s the kind of guy who shows up in New England. He is picked up and cut by three other teams and starts all of six games over three anonymous seasons in Buffalo and then fundamentally alters an AFC championship game.
The kind of player Tom Brady can, for a night or a year, make a star.
“It takes a lot of people,” Brady said. He meant for a night, or a season. But it’s true for his career.
In the aftermath of the Patriots’ thorough 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, a win that propelled them into the Super Bowl against Atlanta in two weeks, Hogan’s tale will be told and rightly so. He is the player Brady found, wide open in the right corner of the end zone, for New England’s first touchdown. He is the player offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels chose to feature when he pulled out a second-quarter flea-flicker that went for another touchdown. He finished the night with nine catches for 180 yards, numbers befitting the best receivers in the game.
“Took advantage of my opportunities,” Hogan said afterward, already well versed in the Patriots’ say-nothing-or-else way of life.
Annually, though, this is a bit of a fill-in-the-blank exercise. On Sunday night, it was Hogan. But with no offense to him, that’s all but happenstance. As defensive back Duron Harmon said, “To see a team that the turnover each year is so different, and to be in the same spot, just competitive year after year, it’s just amazing.”
Brady is the constant. Brady is the guy who, through 270 regular season and playoff games, has provided so many Chris Hogans with their Chris Hogan moments. “It’s been a long journey,” Hogan said, and he is not wrong. But would the journey have ended already if not for Brady? Brady is the one who, at age 39, threw for 384 yards in the AFC title game, breaking his own franchise postseason record. Brady is the one going for his fifth ring.
And Sunday night was a look at how he won the previous four. Brady found seven receivers in the first half alone. Take the Patriots’ first four plays from scrimmage: Brady targeted four other guys — and he hadn’t yet looked Hogan’s way. When no one guy stands out, what’s a defense to do?
By now, this is a considerable part of Brady’s brilliance. Brady has endured and excelled without Peyton Manning’s Marvin Harrison, without Joe Montana’s Jerry Rice, without Troy Aikman’s Michael Irvin. Every year, he picks up the cards from the table, looks them over and somehow turns them into a straight flush.
So when the throngs gather here at the side of U.S. 1, when they file into Patriot Place hours before kickoff, it’s hard to know what jersey to buy at the team store. If Brady’s “12” by this point seems cliche — and judging by the number of those blue shirts on airplanes and in Dunkin’ Donuts in these parts this weekend, it does — then try to find a constant. You can’t.
This year alone, Brady found nine receivers for touchdowns, the sixth season in which he has spread out scoring passes that generously. Part of that is because, without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski as a primary, outsize target when the field gets short, he has to mix and match. That has been typical throughout his career, one in which Gronkowski and legendary wideout Randy Moss were the only Patriots to reach double digits in touchdown catches in a season.
About those two, Moss and Gronkowski. The former is one of the best receivers in the history of the sport. He was an undeniable, game-changing weapon for the Patriots in his three-plus years here. But over the course of Brady’s 17-year career, those 52 games are a blip. An effective blip but a blip all the same.
And Gronkowski? The Gillette crowd thundered its approval when the end zone video board showed Gronk, for some reason, seated next to Jon Bon Jovi in a suite. Gronkowski has the size, speed and skill to redefine the tight end position. But that’s when he plays. He hasn’t appeared in all 16 games since 2011, and he has missed 24 over the past five years. When Gronkowski’s third back surgery ended his 2016, Patriots fans viewed the future thusly: Brady will be here in 2017 and beyond, but will we ever see vintage Gronk again?
One more thing about Moss and Gronk: They are two of the just three receivers total who have been first-team all-pros as a Brady target. The other: Wes Welker. That’s it: three.
But don’t we, by now, know enough about Brady that we can fairly label Welker as something of his creation? In his 93 regular season games with the Patriots, Welker averaged 7.2 catches. In his 82 games at three other stops the rest of his career, he averaged 2.7. He was a great player — with Brady.
So, then, Hogan: Get the Penn State lacrosse coach and the Monmouth football coach on the phone to learn more. “I’ve worked really hard to get here,” he said, and he is added to that endless list of effective but low-profile Brady targets from years gone by, the Deion Branches and Jabar Gaffneys and Reche Caldwells and on and on. Julian Edelman is worth knowing, what with three seasons of at least 90 catches and eight catches for 118 yards with a score Sunday. But he is not Calvin Johnson or Julio Jones. He’s a 6-foot, 198-pound ex-college quarterback at Kent State.
By the end Sunday, Brady celebrated his seventh trip to the Super Bowl with a room full of players who weren’t in the league all those years ago, when he first won the AFC title. He might, fairly, have been asked to compare all these moments.
For Hogan, there is no comparison. There is Sunday night, a star turn, and two more weeks in the spotlight. For that, like so many before him, he has Tom Brady to thank.