David Patten and the Element of Surprise

By Guest Columnist @PatriotsDaily

“In conflict, direct confrontation will lead to engagement and surprise will lead to victory. Those who are skilled in producing surprises will win.”

 – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

One of the understated joys of being a Patriots fan during the Belichick era is how often something goes counter to expectations. Football is a game of planning and execution, but so often the thrills come when things don’t go according to plan.

“Surely Belichick won’t do this” went the mantra. “Surely Belichick won’t keep playing Brady once Bledsoe’s healthy,” until he did just that. “Surely Belichick will never trade Bledsoe within the division,” until he did just that. “Surely Belichick will never choose to kick off to Peyton Manning in overtime,” until he did just that. Even just this past week, with the prevailing belief being that Belichick was locked into some old coaches wives’ tale about never starting a rookie quarterback, Belichick did just that.

The original “Surely Belichick won’t”.

Patriots football has been like that for two decades – confounding expectations, flouting convention, defying probability – so much so that rivals resorted to conspiracy theories and superstition to explain away losing to what they believed to be inferior teams. It could never be that they were simply out-worked, out-prepared, out-coached, or out-played.

David Patten, the Super Bowl XXXVI hero who tragically passed away last Thursday at the age of 47, is the answer to that mystery. He was the ideal Belichick player: selfless and humble, tireless and hardworking, competitive and gracious. Rivals need look no further than Patten to understand just how they lost that game.

Patten might be the first of Patriot surprises, predating even the time Bill Belichick told Drew Bledsoe he wouldn’t be getting “his” job back from Tom Brady. For all those now on the “It was always Brady” bandwagon (and previously on the “all he does is dinks and dunks” bandwagon), let’s not forget the guy who saw champion qualities in the former sixth-round pick way before the rest of the civilized world.

Patten’s story is best told in context, and that context is Terry Glenn.

In the summer of 2001, the two men occupied opposite poles of the football spectrum. Glenn was the sole playmaker on a 5-11 team, a Pro Bowler two years prior, and a year removed from signing a $50 million contract. 

Patten was a fifth-year player who played a little in the Arena League, made his NFL bones as a kick returner with the Giants, then bounced to Cleveland before eventually getting a call from the Pats. Nobody could envision Patten’s slot on a depth chart that included Glenn and Troy Brown at the top spots, and with more celebrated free agents Charles Johnson, Bert Emanuel and Torrance Small also vying for jobs.

Glenn was in the doghouse entering camp, with an offseason domestic assault arrest, and a 4-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. When the Pats withheld bonus money in accordance with behavioral clauses in his contract, Glenn left camp in protest.

Imagine how many times the two players crossed paths in camp prior to Glenn bolting. Did either have any idea how their career paths would diverge so completely in the coming months?

OTA - Off Topic Activities: #88 - Terry Glenn Edition - Pats Pulpit

Five years prior, Glenn was the super-athletic wunderkind from Ohio State, the sixth overall pick in a receiver-heavy draft that included Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens, and Pro Bowlers Keyshawn Johnson, Eric Moulds, and Muhsin Muhammed. Patten, meanwhile, went undrafted out of Western Carolina, biding his time stocking trucks with 75 lb coffee bean bags while waiting for his pro football opportunity.  

In August of that year, while the rookie Glenn missed all of exhibition action with a hamstring injury (prompting Bill Parcells’ “She’s making progress” comment), Patten got picked up by the Arena League’s Albany Firebirds for their playoff push. In the semifinals, he caught three passes for 44 yards against Kurt Warner’s Iowa Barnstormers.

Patten was everything Glenn wasn’t: humble, hard-working and the ultimate teammate. He was lightly recruited, played for a relatively unheralded Division IAA school, and went undrafted. It’s no exaggeration to say he earned everything he achieved.

Glenn never saw the glory Patten witnessed firsthand. Despite a monster rookie season, Glenn’s massive potential went unrealized. His Patriots legacy is a cautionary tale, a reminder to disavow ourselves of preconceived notions. And to be willing to accept that the “next guy up” might be as good as the last one. Possibly better.

Going into 2001, the expectations for the Patriots were nil. In March of that year, Joel Buchsbaum labeled the Patriots, “The team that’s most set up for failure for the next five years.” At best, after a 5-11 season, there was just hope for improvement. Again, our preconceived notions told us that if there was any glory to be had that year, it must be coming from Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn. 

But Bill Belichick didn’t care how high a player was drafted, how much he made, or what legacy he carried. And so when Glenn went AWOL, and Patriots fans were frantic about the team needing to come to amends with its top playmaker, Belichick had moved on with the guy he already had – the short, slight, humble, hard-working kid with good speed from Western Carolina.

Patten exemplified the element of surprise that so personified that 2001 Patriots team. With unheralded players like Patten, Troy Brown, Antowain Smith, and most certainly Brady, the Patriots were routinely underdogs, yet still finding ways to win.

David Patten dies in motorcycle crash at 47
Patten embodied what the ’01 Patriots were about.

We didn’t know it then, but Glenn’s 2001 season drew up the blueprint for how the Belichick Patriots would come to handle distractions. He was suspended three times that season – the four games for violating the substance abuse policy, for the season after skipping out of practice for 11 days (reversed later by an arbitrator), and for good just prior to the playoffs. 

This made for a season where Glenn was sometimes available, but mostly not. After a seven-catch, 110-yd game in October, in which Glenn caught Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass, Glenn felt vindicated, believing the performance justified the return of his bonus money. The Pats didn’t budge, so Glenn malingered with his balky hamstring, even suggesting it would heal faster if he got paid.

Patten stepped up into the starter’s role, catching 51 balls for 749 yards. Glenn played three more games, but after another series of missed meetings, Belichick suspended him for good. 

On Glenn’s final day in New England, you have to wonder if the two receivers crossed paths one last time: Glenn packing his bags for destinations unknown; and Patten about to undergo a historic playoff journey (seven clutch receptions in the Snow Bowl, and twin right-corner-of-the-end-zone TDs against the Steelers and the Rams, respectively) we had previously imagined might be Glenn’s legacy.

In that moment, with one player walking out the door and one walking in, and Glenn gazing for the last time upon the player who had taken his place, do you think he was surprised?

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