FOXBOROUGH — As linchpin Vince Wilfork went down, and then veteran Tommy Kelly, as rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones were thrust into starting roles, and as Andre Carter was re-signed after a year away from the club and Isaac Sopoaga was acquired in a trade, the job of making it all work has fallen heavily on the shoulders of Patrick Graham.
Graham is the Patriots’ defensive line coach, one of the young assistants that has joined the New England staff over the last decade and worked his way up from low-level assistant to position coach.
This is his second year in charge of the D-line — he was linebackers coach in 2011 — and Graham has clearly had to make his share of adjustments. But his boss is happy with the work he’s doing, which is always a good thing.
“He does a great job,” Bill Belichick said. “He has a lot of energy, works really hard. He’s coached linebackers, he has a good understanding of everything on the defense, not just the defensive line play. He does a good job with fundamentals, does a good job with schemes, has a good understanding of what the offenses are doing.
“He did that for two years of breaking down film and doing the quality control-type things and all that [in 2009-10]. He has a real good understanding of the overall picture and specifically what his group does and how it relates to the adjacent players.
“He’s a good on-the-field coach, he’s a good preparation coach.”
The 34-year-old Graham grew up in Waterbury, Conn., and played at Yale, where he began as a tight end (“I had dreams of catching touchdowns, which didn’t come true”) before switching to the defensive line before his junior season.
After graduating, he spent a year as a public relations consultant but didn’t like the work. Though he was never close to playing in the NFL, Graham still loved football.
So when one of his frequent calls to his Yale defensive line coach resulted in the suggestion that maybe he’d want to try his hand at college coaching and further his education as a graduate assistant, the idea held appeal.
Through his former head coach, Jack Siedlecki, Graham got a position at Wagner in New York City. He moved from there to Richmond, where he met his wife, Pamela, and then Notre Dame, where he worked under Charlie Weis.
Weis, who had long worked with Belichick, helped Graham land his initial gig with the Patriots two years later.
The lessons he learned in college coaching and since arriving in New England have come in handy this season.
“He knows everybody’s position,” Vellano said. “Not just D-line, he knows the linebackers, he knows the secondary, he knows the coverages, he knows the offense and what they’re thinking, so what he sees, his vision, watching film with him is very [helpful]. He’s taught me a lot and he’s really expanded my knowledge.”
Undrafted out of Maryland, Vellano made the 53-man roster out of training camp and has played in every game, starting the last five. Jones, also a rookie but a player who didn’t join the Patriots until mid-September after being released by the Texans (who drafted him) and Buccaneers, has played in six games.
Getting them ready to play roles far larger than they were originally slated to play meant Graham had to coach them up, Vellano said.
“It’s tough on him, because if we don’t do it right, it goes back to him that he’s not teaching us right, so he’s got to make sure we’re right,” he said.
With Wilfork injured in Week 4 and Kelly a week later, and before Carter and Sopoaga came along, practices meant Graham was giving direction to seven players, with six of them either in their first or second NFL season. In addition to Vellano and Jones, Michael Buchanan is a rookie, and Chandler Jones, Marcus Forston, and Jake Bequette are second-year guys. Rob Ninkovich was the only truly experienced player in the bunch.
No wonder Carter jokes that Graham hugged him when he showed up, after signing Oct. 23.
“If you notice, if you look closely, he’s grown gray hairs,” quipped Carter. “The rookies have stressed him out completely.”
Carter also appreciates Graham’s understanding of how all the pieces of the defense work, and the coach’s attention to detail.
“He’s definitely a technician, which is important,” said Carter. “Some of the great coaches that I enjoy working for thrive through technique, and technique is great.
“You can have all the athleticism, but technique kills, especially when it comes to those important games where you need to be in certain areas, certain fits, certain looks to help guys on the back end.”
Carter is just a few months younger than his coach, which he sees as part of the blessing of being able to play in the league for 13 years; he noted that his head coach in Oakland last year, Dennis Allen, was only 40.
Graham agrees that it isn’t strange, and something Weis taught him plays a role.
“All players want to get coached,” he said, “and if you’ve got some information for them that’s going to help them play better, they’ll take it from wherever they can get it.
“It’s not weird, it’s a great working relationship. We’re all grown men here at this level, so I enjoy it.”
Graham has faced some challenges at work, and has also been juggling some family stress. He and Pamela were expecting their second child in early December, but he made his appearance five weeks early, in the days before the Patriots faced Miami.
The baby is eating and breathing on his own, but the couple still haven’t been able to bring him home, where they also have a 17-month-old daughter; Graham said the hope was the baby would leave the hospital this week.
He sounds as though he has taken it in stride, just as he has with all of the changes to his position.
“It’s wonderful to have a family, and it’s not like I’m the first coach to ever go through it, so I take advice from all the guys on the staff that have gone through it and we’re just making the best of it,” Graham said.
“My wife does a great job of taking care of things that I don’t have time to take care of, and when the offseason comes, I’ve got the ‘honey do’ list.”
After what he’s been through this season, that list might be a breeze.