FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s one of the signs on a wall deep inside Gillette Stadium that Patriots players see every day. The message isn’t that unusual. They probably heard a version of it either in college or in high school, and they probably didn’t notice this particular sign upon first arriving at the team’s facility:
MENTAL TOUGHNESS = DOING THE RIGHT THING FOR THE TEAM … WHEN EVERYTHING ISN’T PERFECT
This brand of toughness is a must for Patriots players. It’s not just an intrinsic trait that some players walk in with; it is hardened and reinforced every day. Either you develop it, or you won’t be wearing a Patriots uniform for very long.
Running back Shane Vereen admits—and his coaches privately would agree—he didn’t have it as a rookie in 2011. He’s always had blazing speed, and he’s one of the most natural pass catchers you’ll ever find at his position. But he made a choice along the way to get with the program, and that newfound toughness has transformed him into one of the Patriots’ most dangerous players as they begin their playoff run Saturday night against the Colts.
“It was a challenge I made to myself, because I saw the way we play here,” Vereen said earlier this week in one of the tunnels at Gillette Stadium. “I had never been a part of a team that is so physically tough—and mentally tough. Once I got that hint, and decided that I needed to be tougher, that’s kind of when things mentally started changing for me.”
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Spending a season under Bill Belichick’s tutelage is a mental gauntlet designed to build the inner drive of a champion. If the media and fans are pumping your tires after a game, expect the opposite treatment in film sessions. You can’t do anything right. It’s amazing you’ve even gotten this far in your career. (In case you’re wondering, quarterback Tom Brady gets it the worst.) At practice, when you’re at your weakest after an arduous grind, or in a film session, just when you’re ready to doze off, Belichick will challenge you with some obscure situation that has presented itself no more than three times in the history of professional football. You better get it right, lest teammates realize they can’t count on you. If not, good luck getting reps in practice.
And Brady isn’t always on the receiving end of such criticism. You might as well curl up in a corner if you haven’t mastered the exact footwork and the defensive reads needed to gain his trust. You’re going to hear it from the walking computer at quarterback—loudly—and you’re also not going to play.
Regarding physical toughness, there is but one rule in Foxborough: if you’re not on the field, it’s as if you were never even there. It might sound cruel, but how else could the Patriots have gone 11-5 while enduring the loss of Brady in 2008? How about finishing 12-4 this season, despite losing Pro Bowl-level performers such as Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Spikes? You don’t lament departures. If you act like they were never there, then there’s nothing to miss.
Pity, then, Vereen, who came in as a second-round pick in 2011, injured a hamstring early in camp and was barely heard from again: he appeared in five games for a total of 26 snaps. In 2012, Vereen again missed part of camp and the first three games with a foot injury. He rallied to show glimpses of his talent, especially with two receiving touchdowns in a playoff victory over the Texans, but he was still on the outside looking in.
Then everything started falling in place in 2013. Not only did the Patriots let go versatile back Danny Woodhead in free agency, Vereen remained healthy throughout camp and got the necessary reps with Brady and the offensive line. He also showed an increased willingness to run inside; the 5-10, 200-pound back was a sprinter in college and he always preferred to attack the edges on the gridiron, hoping to find open space.
But he toughened up between the tackles and became something more than just a third-down back. He even had a chance to fill the very large shoes of the versatile Kevin Faulk, the glue of the Pats’ Super Bowl-winning teams who retired after the 2011 season. The season opener against the Bills was the first indication that Vereen’s role was changing. After Stevan Ridley was benched in the second quarter for fumbling, Vereen finished with a career-high 101 rushing yards on 14 carries, and seven catches for 58 yards.
After the game, however, the Patriots discovered that Vereen had broken a small bone in his left wrist and needed surgery. His season was in jeopardy. Again.
“I was pretty upset about it and kind of hurt by it,” Vereen says now.
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Though injured players might cease to exist in Belichick’s eyes, that doesn’t mean they can’t come back from oblivion. Shortly after Vereen had surgery in early September, Belichick designated him to return. (Teams can tab one player on IR to come back before the season ends, though he can’t practice for six weeks and he must miss eight games.)
“Bill and I just had a talk, and he told me that was the decision,” Vereen recalls. “He said I can come back and I should be fine when I come back—and it’s a rare injury, something they haven’t dealt with a lot. But they were confident of an entire comeback, and that I could be effective.”
Has he ever.
For the season, the 24-year-old has 91 total touches for 635 yards and four touchdowns. To be more accurate, that’s for half the season, just eight games. His value will only increase in the playoffs. Vereen has become the “matchup player” in the Patriots’ offense, and the most important red-zone weapon after Gronkowski was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will line up Vereen all over the field, and Brady will send him in motion with the goal of getting a linebacker to cover him. There are few who are up to the task.
“The good thing about that is when I’m spread out, and when I’m able to be matched up [against a linebacker], I can do a multitude of things,” Vereen says. “I’m not just running one route. I’m not just running these routes and that’s it. And so because of that and the variety, regardless of who’s out there … the fact that we’re able to mix in so many routes and combinations keeps them off balance, so it helps me out tremendously.”
Vereen wouldn’t be where he is now if he hadn’t gained Brady’s trust. If Brady can’t count on you, you’re not going to play much, and you’re certainly not getting the ball when you do. Earning his confidence is one of the toughest things for a young player in the Patriots’ offense to achieve. But it’s an absolute must. It had long been a work in progress for Vereen, probably because he missed so many reps in his first two seasons, but the chemistry finally blossomed this season.
“We’re better now than we have been since I’ve been here,” Vereen says, “just as far as being on the same page, just knowing each other, knowing what he’s looking for; and the same with him, he knows what I’m looking for. It’s growing a lot. And it’s going to get better and I’m looking forward to that, too.”
But Vereen might be underselling himself, as Brady often will seek him out for input on plays.
“He’s got a great understanding for [the mental side of the game], so when someone communicates that they know exactly what you’re talking about, and they know how to do it, then you trust them. He has a high football IQ,” Brady says. “We communicate all the time about what I’m looking for and what I need from him. He’s earned that trust.”
He’s earned that trust.
There is no higher praise to be had from Brady. And if that glowing report means Belichick will pick on Vereen in an upcoming film session, well, he now has the toughness to handle it.