PHOENIX — Brandon LaFell wanted to play in a game that mattered.
That’s all he did during his time at LSU, helping the Tigers win a BCS title at the end of the 2007 season. But he went through a serious drought in the NFL. During his first three years in Carolina, the Panthers missed the playoffs before finally breaking through in 2013. They lost their first game.
Too much losing. Too much frustration. So when LaFell got the opportunity to hook on with the Patriots this summer as a free agent, the wide receiver had an easy decision to make.
“I wanted to go somewhere where winning was already installed,” LaFell said. “I wanted to continue to win. My last year in Carolina, we won a lot of games and I love that feeling. I wanted to either stay in Carolina where I knew we would win again or go somehwere where I could win just as much.
“Coming here, you look at their résumé — since 2000, they probably have won the most games in the NFL. Six Super Bowl appearances. I wanted to go somehwere where I could have the possibility to pursue those.”
At first, it looked like LaFell might’ve made the wrong decision. He wasn’t targeted in the first two games of the season. He privately wondered if he was ever going to get the ball.
On top of that, the Patriots were struggling and people began to question whether the team was overrated. Was the dynasty over?
“The way we started the first four games, I thought sooner or later I was never going to get the football,” LaFell said. “To look back from how we started and how everybody was counting us out to how we are finishing the season and how we’re in the Super Bowl, it’s a really good feeling.”
It’s not surprising LaFell feels this way. The team success is obvious, as the Patriots will play the Seahawks in Sunday’s Super Bowl. But beyond that, LaFell has quietly been one of the more important players on offense.
While he might not get the same amount of attention as tight end Rob Gronkowski or wide receiver Julian Edelman, it should not be overlooked that LaFell caught 74 passes for 953 yards with seven touchdowns this season. And it was LaFell who caught the game-winning touchdown with 5:13 left in a divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.
When discussing his receivers earlier this week, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t need many words to explain how he feels about his new weapon.
“Brandon LaFell has been spectacular,” he said.
It’s no small feat. Fitting into New England’s offense is not an easy task for wide receivers. Many talented players have tried to survive in New England’s offense. Many have failed.
Chad Ochocinco washed out after one year. Joey Galloway only lasted three games. Danny Amendola, who was signed before the 2013 season, finished the regular season with 200 receiving yards — 87 of which came over the final two games.
How quickly LaFell fit in isn’t lost on his teammates.
“He’s a huge part of our offense, and it’s awesome to see him how he’s blossomed in this offense, from the beginning to being such a huge part of it right now and throughout the whole season,” Edelman said. “He’s picked up this offense relatively quick, and it just shows how much work he puts in and how smart he is to actually be able to go out and get his feet wet the first year and do a bunch of stuff like that.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that the Patriots started to come out of their early-season funk once LaFell did the same. He might look like the third fiddle in an offense with plenty of other weapons, but that isn’t how he’s viewed by his teammates.
He’s a key piece to an offense that’s playing in the Super Bowl. He’s the guy who picked up the offense quicker than most. He’s the outside receiver New England’s offense has lacked for years.
But more important for LaFell, he’s part of a winner. And he can’t wait to finish the job.
“It’s getting real exciting but we’re not there yet,” LaFell said. “I just can’t wait for that game to come.”