FOXBOROUGH — When he was at Louisiana State, and even before he arrived in Baton Rouge, Brandon LaFell watched the Tigers’ receivers.
Players such as Josh Reed and Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson, who preceded him at LSU and went on to NFL careers, were all physical receivers. They were guys that blocked, guys that took on defenders, guys that turned the ball upfield to try to make a play.
And when LaFell’s time came, he knew if he wanted to suit up for LSU, he’d have to be the same way.
When he was drafted by the Panthers five years ago, it was another teammate, brash veteran Steve Smith, who reinforced the notion of physicality. According to LaFell, Smith wouldn’t even talk to him until he showed he could block and excel at the parts of the position a lot of wideouts shy away from.
The lessons LaFell learned at LSU and with the Panthers are ones he brought with him to New England when he signed as a free agent this offseason, traits that have endeared him to his coaches and his quarterback.
“He’s brought a real toughness to our team, physically,” Tom Brady said. “Playing through injuries, playing through bumps and bruises, and then when he gets out on the field he brings the physical presence that you don’t often get from the receiver position. He’s in there on crack blocks, he’s in there blocking down field.”
Brady mentions LaFell’s downfield block on Danny Amendola’s first-half touchdown against the Ravens last Saturday. In a film breakdown of the play on the Patriots’ website, Bill Belichick notes that LaFell is engaged with cornerback Rashaan Melvin near the 5, but notices safety Darian Stewart coming across the field to try to stop Amendola, so LaFell releases from Melvin to chip Stewart, giving Amendola enough space to finish his run for the end zone.
That head’s up play is part of why “I love coaching” LaFell, Belichick said in the video.
“He’s really impressive. He’s a tough kid, competes very well,” Belichick said on Wednesday. “We’ve seen that since back into last spring, all the way through training camp, all the way through the season. He comes to work every day and he’s tough. He blocks well, plays in the kicking game. I love his toughness.”
It didn’t just take physical toughness for LaFell to get through this season however, and advance to the point where Brady was looking his way with the Patriots’ season on the line, as he did Saturday night.
It took some mental toughness as well.
Through the first two games of the season, LaFell had zero catches, targeted six times in the opener in Miami, but Brady didn’t even look his way in the second game, against the Vikings.
He had his first four receptions in his first home game with the Patriots, against Oakland, and went on to a career-best season across the board: 74 catches, 953 yards, seven touchdowns.
“Whenever you get a new player, it’s hard to really figure out exactly how it shows up on game day until you get to game day and see how it shows up,” Brady said. “In training camp, there’s no tackling. Mental toughness comes into play a little bit during training camp, but not much. The games don’t matter. When you really see what someone is all about is when it matters.
“And when they’re not feeling good and when you’ve been at it for awhile, you can really see what someone’s character is. It’s been great to see.”
LaFell — Brady and others call him JoJo, a nickname he picked up during his childhood in Houston, taken from his middle name, Josiah — said staying the course was key to his finding his way.
“Not complain to the media, not complain to Tom, not go to Bill and cry, just continue what I do,” LaFell said. “Just make plays at practice and when my number’s called in the game, I just made plays and eventually it just started coming my way a little bit more.”
He spent extra time with Brady on the side during practice, repping the routes that were on the schedule for the next offensive period while the defense did its work.
LaFell felt confident in his knowledge of the playbook by the Oakland game; feeling like he’d really won over Brady took longer.
“Finally getting Tom’s trust, I would have to say the Chicago game,” LaFell said. “He came to me a lot, man. The whole week in practice he was coming to me almost every play and then we got to the game and I thought it was going to change up [but] in the game he came to me 12, 13 times and I ended up having 11 catches. So that was pretty much the game, that was the moment I feel like I earned his trust.”
And clearly, he’s kept it: last Saturday night, with the Patriots’ season hanging in the balance, it was LaFell who got the game-winning touchdown, on a 23-yard pass from Brady.
“It felt great,” LaFell said. “It just goes to say all of the time that was put in throughout the season, catching extra balls with [Brady] on the opposite field, staying after practice catching balls, and watching film with him and the rest of the quarterbacks, just to see the same thing out there on the field. Not just seeing it as a receiver, seeing it from Tom’s eyes, and hearing him say where he wants us to be on this play and that play.
“It just felt great.”