You wouldn't pick him out of a crowd. At 5' 8" tall and tipping the scales at 202 pounds, there are punters and kickers bigger than he is. A ten year veteran, his wheels aren't what they once were, either. He has no breakaway speed. On the street -- heck, on the sideline -- he just isn't all that impressive.
But give him the ball? Hold on to your jockstrap if you don't want to lose it.
With both hands.
Kevin Faulk was the 46th overall pick in the New England Patriots' 1999 draft. It was a long way down. Faulk was coming off one of the most remarkable college careers the south has ever seen. A four year starter at LSU, he revived that moribund program in the middle 90's -- a homegrown talent from Carencro, just a few miles up the road from Lafayette. Faulk was the most sought-after Louisiana schoolboy recruit in a generation. Electing to stay close to home and don the gold and purple, he led the Tigers to three bowl games. In the storied history of the SEC, the only back to out-gain him was Herschel Walker.
On draft day, however, he fell to the second round. Too small, too slow over the open field, he was projected as a third down specialist (accurately, as it turns out). At the time, no one was going to waste a 1st round draft pick on a third round specialist. The Patriots scooped him up by trading two picks to Tennessee. The 1999 draft was one of the strongest in history. The first round featured Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Fernando Bryant, Damien Woody, John Tait, David Boston, Champ Bailey, Tory Holt, Ricky Williams and a guy y'all might know: Edgerrin James. In terms of production for the dollar, however, no one of those fellas can equal Kevin Faulk.
And he just might be the most "clutch" of the bunch.
Since 1999, he has started barely two seasons' worth of games for New England (32). But in that time he has amassed a litany of statistical achievements:
10,687 all-purpose yards.
An average of 3.9 yards per rush and 8.7 yards per pass caught: that's 6.3 yards from scrimmage every time he touches the ball.
He is now 6th all-time on the Patriots receiving list, with 343 receptions for 2,985 yards.
He has returned punts and kicks. He's even tossed a pass or two.
But the numbers really don't tell the story. The story is how he's managed to do all of this--including shouldering the bulk of the running game at various times in his career--in spite of the fact that he's too slow, too short, and too freakin' light. Two hundred pounds, fer chrissakes!
The answer? It's the little things. It has very little to do with his considerable talent, his native proprioception and balance. It has everything to do with being a relentless student of the game and having a natural knack for its rhythms and spaces. It's about concentration and preparedness and determination.
You fans of Indianapolis know this about Kevin. When there is a key play to be made, Faulk will very likely be the main attraction. As a fan, I've marveled at his awareness of the field. He always seems to know where the down marker is--even if he's between the hashmarks and between the tackles. Even in the confused scrum of a short-yardage situation, I've seen very few athletes who share his ability to know just how many inches more he needs--not to mention the capacity to somehow weasel them out of a seemingly broken play.
He has remarkable patience. His success on draws and screens are directly attributable to his willingness to wait, to hold his ground as giants charge in to crush him, and allow his own enormous escort to engage. He has field-vision, too, enabling him to make the most of that patience. Rarely does Faulk bounce things the wrong way. It's almost like he can see through his blockers, or sense where all 22 men are on the field. It is, in a word, uncanny. (It has also increased frustration among Pats fans with their marquee Maroney, who by comparison to Faulk seems to run blind-folded.)
On third down passes, he's rarely shy of the sticks. He's as likely to take a direct snap and zip between guard and center (a favorite 2-point play) as he is to check out to a circle route and snag a key pass out of the backfield. And lately, with Maroney out for the season and Jordan nursing a calf injury, he's also shown a willingness to pound the ball--yes, to pound it. He runs 20 pounds heavier than he weighs.
He's no dope, either. He graduated from LSU with a degree in kinesiology.
Did I mention he's our best pass-blocking back?
And, yes, he can catch. Very well, in fact, and has since he got here. But this'll tell you something about Mr. Faulk: he's still learning to get better. Here he is in an interview about his game-winning touchdown against the Rams last weekend:
"That's something I learned from Randy, not sticking your hands out early, letting the ball come to you," Faulk said of the pass from Matt Cassel that put the Patriots ahead for good with 3:13 left. "Right in the breadbasket."
"He is going to make catches where most people wouldn't even touch the ball," fullback Heath Evans said. "Nothing he ever does surprises me. ... You see him make catches and pick up linebackers that outweigh him by 50 pounds. There are so many aspects to his game; he is probably one of the best, a complete back."
Everybody's talking about it. Seems like that happens every couple of years around here. Lead back goes down and Faulk steps right in and we get a few weeks of stories about what a treasure he is. Then things go back to normal and we stop talking about the guy (or at least the media does). But he keeps on doing his thing. Whatever that is this week. Said Belichick, "Whatever he can do to help us win, he'd do. Mop the floors -- he'd mop them."
This is all beside a very important point, though. All those personnel guys back in '99 who thought Faulk was too slow and too small to be an every-down NFL back? They were right. If Kevin Faulk wasn't so sublimely good at all those little things, he'd be worse than average. But by excelling at catching, finding space, knowing the field, reading blocks, understanding coverages, picking up blitzers, being patient and cold-blooded, he has made himself a more permanent home in the NFL than any player could reasonably hope for.
He excels on the margins.
Which brings me to the overall thrust of this post: If the Patriots are going to be successful on Sunday -- and for the rest of the season -- then that is exactly what they must do as a team. What sets this franchise apart from much of the rest of the NFL, and, dare I say it, from the Colts, is that they are uniquely staffed to do just that.
It begins with a system. We all recognize that Brady, BB and Moss had that system humming at an extraordinary pitch last year. What might not be readily apparent is that it is in essence the very same system that coddled Brady through his toddling year when Bledsoe went down. He wobbled this system, pared down, all the way to the 'Bowl. Now I'm not saying that Cassel is Brady. I'm saying that Cassel doesn't need to be Brady in order for this thing to work. In the past two months, this team has lost one of the two best quarterbacks in the modern game, its starting running back, its backup running back(s), starting right tackle, starting right guard, 1st situational DT, and its all-league strong safety.
What is saving us, what is keeping us holding on by a thread, is a central principle I think this coaching staff lives by: the NFL pecking order is decided on the margins. There is a gnat's hair of difference in the modern NFL between 14-2 and 2-14. And the closer to the middle you get, the thinner that filament gets sliced. 9-7 and a wildcard birth, and 7-9 and home for the summer? A coinflip can't do it justice.
So the Patriots, as a team, are coached to pick up that difference whereever it can be found. Every team looks for hidden yards. With the Pats, that thinking is more than an obsession. It is the foundation of their organizational structure from the college scouts to Scott Pioli, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. It's the only reason we aren't 2-5 right now, or worse. If we weren't doing the little things so well (no penalties last week, for example) we'd be worse than average right now.
Will it last? Shit, I don't know. It might not even make it through Sunday. But it's why we still have Kevin Faulk. As players get culled over the course of installing a new regime, it's guys like that who BB and SP looked for. Your iconic Patriots of the last 10 years have to be Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk. Oh, Brady's the man, don't get me wrong. And Bruschi and Harrison are the soul of that defense (and, yes, I know how much you guys hate Rodney). But in creating an organizational identity, Brown and Faulk stand out.
They are talented athletes. But the reason they stuck is that they excelled on the margins. Every little thing: they do (did) it better than the other guy. If you're looking for a secret behind the last 10 years of success in New England you don't have to look very far.
He may not stand out in a crowd. But Kevin Faulk is the essence of this team.