Before he beat Jabari Greer to the left corner of the end zone with five seconds remaining in the game; before he leapt, spun and latched on to one of the most memorable touchdown passes of the season, Kenbrell Thompkins let one get away.
Well, he didn't drop this Tom Brady pass so much as Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins parted him from it, plastering him with a vicious, third-quarter hit that torqued Thompkins' helmet -- he appeared to be looking out of his earhole, briefly -- and drew a penalty for unnecessary roughness. One's first clue that Thompkins was unscathed came from his immediate lobbying of the zebras; he was vigorously pantomiming the act of throwing a flag before skidding to a halt on the turf.
"That play is a good example of who he is, to be honest," said New England's wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, whose trials in 2013 have not quite been comparable to those of Job in the Old Testament. Then again, it's only Week 7.
"KT is going to bounce up, bounce back. He's not gonna stay down long. He's a tough guy. And he'd be the first to tell you, he should've made the catch."
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New England's thrilling takedown of undefeated New Orleans served as a reminder that while Tom Brady is calling the signals, it's foolish to rule out the Patriots, no matter how patchwork and anonymous the receiving corps.
It was also a declaration by a remarkable rookie, an undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati, that he truly has left his past behind.
Thompkins is a much better receiver than he was a petty criminal. He couldn't have been very good at it -- he was arrested seven times before he was 19. He grew up in Liberty City, Miami, notorious for its sky-high rates of violent crime. "It was nothing but violence," he told the University of Cinncinnati's News Record last spring. "Violence and drugs. I woke up to it and I went to sleep to it, so I thought that was the right thing to do ... It became second nature to me."
He accidentally shot himself in the arm with a handgun when he was 7. Following his final arrest, he served a 28-day jail sentence for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. Upon leaving jail, he ... mended his ways. His younger brother had earned a scholarship to Miami. Thompkins vowed to honor his own athletic talent.
He attended two junior colleges, then signed a letter of intent to play with Tennessee. When Lane Kiffin bailed on that program, Thompkins decided Knoxville wasn't for him, either. He ended up playing two seasons at Cincinnati, earning an invite to the 2013 scouting combine. Rated a fifth-round talent, he went undrafted, not surprisingly, considering that his past is as checkered as the end zones in Neyland Stadium.
Since his post-prison epiphany, Thompkins has trod the straight and narrow. "What we know about these guys," says O'Shea, "is what they do when they get here." Thompkins, he says, "has done a phenomenal job. From OTAs to minicamp to training camp, he's been outstanding in terms of his preparation, work ethic and just buying in to be a great team player."
A great team player on a once great, but now fading team? It's easy to see the Patriots as a club in decline when one considers the well-chronicled demise of Brady's receiving corps. For a variety of reasons -- free agency, trades, injuries, incarceration -- he hasn't played a down in 2013 with any of his top five pass-catchers from last season. It's taking time to achieve chemistry with the new guys, including Thompkins and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson. They mean well, but they're not always where they should be, when they should be. And sometimes, when they are, they drop the ball.
"They're trying hard," said Brady on Sept. 12, after squeaking past the Jets, 13-10, and struggling to connect with his young receivers for the second straight game. "They're working hard. They're great kids. We just have to stay on 'em."
"Grinding" is Brady's gerund of choice. Very little has come easily to this offense this season, yet the Pats are 5-1, because they keep working, even when the result is homely.
Grind long enough, you start making your own breaks.
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In the final three minutes on Sunday, the Saints couldn't capitalize on successive blunders by two of the smartest people in the NFL. Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-6, on his own 24, with 2:46 left to play, exploded like a trick cigar. The Saints held -- a brutal drop by Dobson ending the possession -- then quickly extended their lead to four points with a gimme field goal.
On New England's next play from scrimmage, Brady's bomb to Julian Edelman was picked off by Keenan Lewis. Yes, Brady has seen many passes clang off the hands of his receivers this season. But the 36-year-old has been less accurate than in seasons past. On this interception, Lewis had time to signal for a fair catch, had he so chosen. Saints ball with 2:16 left to play. Pats with no timeouts. This game was good and truly over.
This, at least, was the conviction of the tens of thousands of fans who went streaming out of Gillette Stadium. But the Saints burned just 63 seconds in their ensuing three-and-out. Back onto the field trotted Brady, for his third crack at a come-from-behind win. Consecutive completions to Edelman and Austin Collie, signed off the street nine days earlier, put the Pats on the New Orleans' 32. Forty seconds remained. Dobson makes a redemptive catch, then fought to get out of bounds. On 4th-and-4, Collie moved the chains again, this time with a clutch, nine-yard catch, down to the 17-yard-line. Brady spikes it with 10 seconds to play.
Late in third quarter, Thompkins had vexed Greer on a double-move off the line of scrimmage -- cutting inside, then out -- to get behind the 10-year vet. Brady's throw into the end zone was a half-second late. With time to recover, Greer broke up the play.
This time Thompkins didn't waste a move on Greer, who was backpedalling into a three-deep zone. The truth is, Thompkins wasn't open when Brady let fly his most beautiful ball of the night, a pass that had no margin for error, and missed Greer's outstretched left fingertips by maybe two inches.
Vignettes from the bedlam that followed:
• Brady sprinting to the end zone to celebrate with "the kids."
• Rob Ryan, the Saints defensive coordinator, looking as if he might be physically ill.
• Thompkins punching the air with a cathartic ferocity, a gesture that could have been interpreted as a celebration of his personal triumph over his troubled past. Nope. As he later explained, it was born "more [from] excitement for my team, not necessarily for me."
Because it's not the Patriot Way to get overly excited about a midseason win.
"Kenbrell moved on after we watched the [Saints] film today," said O'Shea. "We're on to the next one."
Throw us a bone, Chad. What was the mood in the receivers room as they watched the game-winning play? O'Shea isn't going there. He works for Belichick, so that's classified. He was willing to say that, after reviewing the host of mistakes made by his charges, watching Thompkins' heroics "was a good way to end the film session."
They drop balls and periodically piss off the Hall of Fame quarterback who feeds them, but this no-name crew of New England receivers keeps grinding, keeps getting better. They're not great, but sometimes they're very good. The kids are all right.