FOXBOROUGH — One of the best scenes in the movie “Hoosiers” is when Ollie comes off the bench for the first time all season and makes two free throws in the final seconds to send the Hickory Huskers to the state championship game.
Last Sunday featured a different sport, a like-sounding name, similar against-all-odds situation, and just as big of an impact. If you’ll excuse Austin Collie, the final drive against the New Orleans Saints felt like his own Hollywood moment. For Patriots fans, it certainly provided a happy ending.
Collie, appearing in a regular-season NFL game for the first time since Sept. 23, 2012, caught two passes in the final 50 seconds. He played only nine snaps the entire game — the entire last drive — but was just as important as fellow receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, who caught the winning 17-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady with five seconds left.
Collie’s 9-yard catch on fourth and 4 set up the Brady-to-Thompkins clincher on the very next play.
It’s been a long, painful road for Collie to even get here, with difficult decisions and not knowing whether his desire to play would be met by someone looking for his services. When the Patriots signed him Oct. 3, he had a new offense to learn and weeks of time to make up.
So he dived right in, asking questions at every opportunity and spending extra hours almost every day with receivers coach Chad O’Shea, walking deliberately through pass plays.
“This is obviously a complex offense, and I’m not going to get it if I just go with the regular schedule,” Collie said. “I’m a little bit behind the eight-ball as far as coming in here five weeks later than everybody else and not having the offseason, so I have to find every chance I can get to cram that in.”
Collie spent his first four seasons in the league with the Colts, catching 16 touchdown passes in 43 games. But he also ran into injury problems, suffering three concussions and a season-ending knee injury, a combination that led the Colts to not re-sign Collie after the 2012 season.
He needed to decide, based on his concussion history, whether a return to football was in his best interests. He felt it was, and signed with San Francisco, but was released Aug. 31.
Then the Patriots came calling. With Danny Amendola injured — first with a groin injury, now with a concussion — tight end Rob Gronkowski still not back (though all signs point to him returning this Sunday against the Jets), and three rookie receivers, Collie’s experience appealed to the Patriots.
“Austin is impressive,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “With the time we’ve had to spend with him so far, he’s really working hard to learn our offense and our system, which is new to him.
“He knows how to play and handle himself during the course of the games. He knows how to handle himself during the week of practice. He’s a guy that has an opportunity to carve out a good role.”
Based on Collie’s abbreviated time with the team, his role against the Saints was very specific. In the event of a two-minute drill, especially with Amendola out, Collie would be needed.
He caught the only two passes Brady threw his way. The first went for a 15-yard gain on the second play of the drive and pushed the ball to the Saints’ 32. The second kept the drive going, turning the fourth down into a must-have first down.
“The coaches did a good job of giving me a heads-up, this is the package that we’re going in with, this is the position you’re going to play,” Collie said. “I never doubted that I still had the ability, but like I said, it was nice to just get out there and contribute in some way to help get the win.”
With Amendola out, and given another full week to get acclimated to a new offense, Collie might be given a larger role Sunday against the Jets. Whatever role it ends up being, it’s better than how things looked three months ago, when he didn’t have a job. Or three weeks ago, when he didn’t have a job.
“We were just joking walking off the field,” said Brady. “He was like, ‘Man, at practice we were getting after it today.’ I said, ‘Well, you could be sitting at home and just watching other guys and saying, ‘Man, the Patriots sure had a great win the other night.’ Or you could be the one making the plays.
“As a quarterback, you always want guys out there that you trust. Certainly me throwing him the ball in those critical situations shows you how comfortable I am with him.”