That wasn't just New England's they'll-never-see-it-coming game plan against the Colts. It seems to be Bill Belichick's approach to finding the guys who share the backfield with Tom Brady—and it's working. New England has clawed back to the top of the AFC by recruiting an old enemy on defense and handing the ball off to ...Jonas Gray?
IN RECENT months Jonas Gray had received just one autograph request. Not that he expected any. Before the Patriots signed the 24-year-old running back to their active roster in mid-October, his career consisted of a time-share at Notre Dame and, after going undrafted in 2012, two failed runs at making an NFL roster, with the Dolphins and the Ravens.
The lone request came from the fan most familiar with Gray's story, with his path from touted college recruit to fringe professional. It came from his mother, Jerri, who envied the signature of perhaps her favorite Patriot.
"Can you get me a signed Tom Brady jersey?" she asked earlier this month.
"I'll try," Gray responded.
"Just ask Tom."
"Mom," he shot back, exasperated.
Gray relayed that story last week, when he was still an anonymous back with just 131 NFL rushing yards. But that was before Sunday, before he carried 38 times against the Colts for 199 yards and four TDs—more in one game than the backfields of the Bills, Chargers, Raiders or Steelers have scored through 11 weeks.
While it was Gray's best game since high school, the buildup to his breakout was vintage Patriots. Trade away a top-tier run-blocking guard, Logan Mankins, right before the season begins. Start 2--2 and let everyone else panic. Find a guy nobody wanted and use him in ways nobody expects. Establish yourself as a passing team, then trot out a six- or seven-man line, with blocking tight ends and a fullback, and morph into a running team for one of the most important games of the regular season. Seize control of the AFC playoff race behind a guy who is sure to sign more autographs this week than he procures.
All around the Patriots, supposed contenders crumbled on Sunday. The Broncos lost, giving New England a one-game lead in the race for AFC home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Lions fell, as did the Saints and the Eagles and the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Meanwhile, the Patriots did not beat the Colts so much as they bludgeoned them, the final score 42--20. Their 27-point loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 4 now seems like a lifetime ago, not seven weeks.
Gray wasn't on the Patriots' active roster back then. But he was in meetings and at run-throughs as a member of the practice squad, and he remembers how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels stood before his unit a week after the debacle in Kansas City. "We're not changing anything," McDaniels said.
That left an impression. Gray dabbled in stand-up comedy at Notre Dame—he once opened for the actor Dustin Diamond, best known as Screech from Saved by the Bell—but when he arrived in New England, he assumed the Patriots Ethos, a clinical approach forged by coach Bill Belichick, endorsed by Brady and other veterans. All business, no improvisation.
"I've been on two other teams, but [nothing] compares to here," Gray said. "Everybody comes to work. They know what the schedule is. They stay late. They put in extra time. It's about winning and it's not about winning. It's about the process."
DARRELLE REVIS hated New England—or at least he wanted to. The team that drafted him in 2007, the Jets, shares a division with the Patriots, and while the two franchises are separated by 200 miles and contrasting approaches—the difference between seeking headlines and running from them—they are bonded by mutual disdain.
Revis was introduced to the rivalry in his first professional game, at the old Giants Stadium. He exited the tunnel, looked across the field and saw Brady alongside receiver Randy Moss, his assignment as a rookie corner. That's when the nerves kicked in. He can't recall much of what happened that afternoon, other than a 51-yard TD bomb to Moss (he makes sure to note that Moss motioned to the other side of the field on that play) and the final score, a 38--14 New York loss.
For six seasons Revis's Jets played the Patriots at least twice a year. Revis describes his preparation for games against Brady and Belichick as exhausting, because New England changed its game plan so drastically from week to week. There were so many ways each game could go. "I was always like, God dang it, why can't it be easier?" he says.
Revis remembered that frustration this off-season as he looked for a new team after a year in Tampa. Belichick called his cellphone. The conversation was brief; not much needed to be said. Revis hated playing the Patriots, and they hated playing him. But he had always been curious about what it would be like to work with the Hoodied One, and he jumped at the chance to do so.
Revis arrived with fellow free-agent cornerback Brandon Browner (from the Seahawks), ready to shore up the defensive backfield, but that didn't stop Brady from continuing the rivalry. The quarterback started in on Revis right away, stopping by his locker before practices to announce to anyone within earshot what he planned to do to Revis that afternoon. He declared he would open a hotel on Revis Island. Brady's competitive nature reminded the cornerback of no one he ever played with or against. No one except himself.
Revis considers all the twists that his career has taken: the holdouts, the contract squabbles, the ugly ending in New York, the lost year in Tampa. This feels, he says, like where he's supposed to be. Now that he's part of this team, New England's approach makes more sense. It's not as complicated as the term for it—the Patriot Way—suggests.
"We do our jobs. We win games. Because all we have to know is that Bill has the formula to win," he says. "All we have to do is follow it."
The 2--2 start that induced so much panic, that left outsiders perplexed? "We were fine," Revis says. "We're a good team, man. We knew that."
AFTER SUNDAY, the Colts know it too. The Patriots left no doubt. They fed Gray, behind an overloaded line, on their first drive, which went 89 yards and culminated with the theme of the night: Gray, straight-ahead, into the end zone.
Gray is not a shifty runner, not the type to dance and elude defenders. He's not all that fast either. He's the back that runs straight into the hole he's assigned, whether a defender is there or not. Less ballerina, more bulldozer. Belichick's kind of guy. (To that point, remember: These are still Belichick's Patriots, with versatility the constant, where one week's stats rarely dictate the next week's plan. Gray's career day in no way guarantees he'll do the same thing next weekend against the Lions, let alone be the lead back.)
Originally signed with the Patriots in January, Gray was moved off the practice squad onto the active roster after running back Stevan Ridley went down with a torn ACL and MCL in October. He flashed potential in his second game, against the Bears in Week 8 (86 rushing yards on 17 carries). Against Indy, he ran behind an offensive line that, despite losing Mankins in August, and despite changing almost every week, still cleared wide swaths of open space. (Dan Connolly filled Mankins's left guard role beautifully on Sunday.) And Gray ran through a seemingly stout front seven that, you may recall (Belichick certainly did), surrendered 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns to another bulldozer Patriots backup, LeGarrette Blount, in the playoffs last season. New England won that game too, and by almost the same score, 43--22.
Gray gained 84 yards on his first 10 carries on Sunday; his impact was obvious. Revis's was less so—and yet it was similar in scope. For most of the game he shadowed Colts receiver Reggie Wayne, which left the rest of the defense free to focus on stopping the run and containing the league's No. 4 receiver, T.Y. Hilton, who finished with just three catches for 24 yards. That's why Revis is so valuable when he's healthy. He can limit an entire section of the field and leave teammates free to roam elsewhere.
These are the 2014 Patriots, guided by new blood, like Gray and Revis, and old hands, like Brady and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Tight end Tim Wright, obtained in the Mankins trade, caught a touchdown. Receiver Brandon LaFell, a scrap-heap free-agency acquisition, gained 62 receiving yards. Julian Edelman, a quarterback converted to receiver, added 50 more.
Whatever works. By the time Gray plunged into the end zone for the fourth time, the game was effectively over. He spiked the ball into the turf and flexed his biceps for the cameras. Four games against potential playoff teams loomed on the schedule—Detroit, at Green Bay, at San Diego, Miami—but at that moment the Patriots looked, if not unbeatable, then like the team to beat.
Gray may need to update his Twitter account now; that's the small price of fame. His bio still says that he plays for the Dolphins. But Gray's mother surely sees the upside of it. Perhaps her son can trade his career day for the autograph she sought.
Don't feel bad if you didn't know Jonas Gray from Jonas Salk before Sunday. New England's Johnny-Football-come-lately is the 10th player to lead the Pats in rushing since 2011. Only the Browns have had a bigger rotation in that time (QBs excluded). Gray's running mates:
TIMES LEADING NE
Photograph by David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated
Photographs by David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated
JONAS, OH BROTHER Gray's fourth TD—while Rob Gronkowski buried Colts safety Sergio Brown (left, in the background)—and Revis's roping in of Reggie Wayne (above) returned the Patriots to the Super Bowl conversation.