EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Bill Belichick wondered. Had it been 20 years? Twenty-five?
“When’s the last time a quarterback ran for 85 yards? With the Patriots? It’s at least 20 years,” he said Thursday night after the Patriots fourth and final preseason game.
As of the fourth quarter against the Giants, it was time to reset the clock. Rookie quarterback Danny Etling sprung free on a bootleg and found himself sprinting 86 yards down the field for a touchdown. Etling looked back over his shoulder seven times on the way to the house.
“I just wanted to make sure no one would catch me,” Etling said. “I didn’t realize that you could just look at the Jumbotron.”
After playing just a few snaps in the first two preseason games, and sitting out the third, the fourth was Etling’s showcase, a 17-12 win for the Patriots. He played the whole game after spending the week leading up to it preparing as the starter, working closely with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski, as well as receivers coach Chad O’Shea, who called the plays Thursday night.
Etling, whose family was in attendance, finished 18-of-32 passing for 157 yards and a touchdown pass, a toss to Ralph Webb at the goal line that was set up by a beautiful 45-yard throw to K.J. Maye, plus 113 yards rushing and the rushing touchdown.
The mad dash off the bootleg was the most fun, but the most impressive might have been a play on third and 12, where Etling scrambled up the middle and dived for the first down. After the game, Etling said he didn’t slide because he knew where the first down marker was.
Otherwise, he was shaky. There were plenty of plays, especially early in the game, where Etling showed a lack of touch and of pocket awareness. Somehow he seems more accurate throwing deep than he does throwing short and intermediate passes, and at least one of the two sacks he took was his fault. It would be a surprise to see him make the roster. The Patriots could probably pass him through waivers and put him on the practice squad.
“First times are always going to be what they are, first times,” Etling said. “So you want to make sure you improve from it. I hope I get another opportunity to continue to progress and learn, and I hope I showed that I can progress and learn throughout the game as well.”
Going home with a memory of a highlight play, one that had the whole sideline celebrating and Belichick coming over to deliver a handshake, isn’t meaningful in the same way that getting a roster spot, another week’s pay, and another opportunity is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful.
“When something like that happens you’re just happy for him,” Belichick said.
“It’s a lot of hard work. Honestly, I think the run he had on third and whatever it was, 10, where he put his shoulder down and took on the tackler and got the first down, that was big.”
Preseason football can be as dull and as pointless to a viewer as it is critical for a player trying to make a roster. The decision to watch it is questionable at the outset and sometimes, like when it’s the fourth quarter and Belichick is taking out his challenge flag, it’s enough to make you want to pack up your things and go live among the hill people.
And then there are moments that bind a 66-year-old head coach, a 24-year-old player, and everyone who was, somehow, still watching together in joy, fleeting as it may be. Cuts are due Saturday, but at very least it was fun while it lasted.
Nora Princiotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.