By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — The connection of Chris Long with the New England Patriots remains one that seemed unlikely to ever happen.
Back in the spring of 2008, Long was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The Patriots, meanwhile, were fresh off a 16-0 regular season and came up a hair short of completing the perfect season. Though they lost that Super Bowl in February 2008, the team was expected to once again be a strong championship contender the following fall.
The Patriots did, however, hold a high draft pick, thanks to a 2007 trade with San Francisco. Still, sitting at No. 7 overall, Bill Belichick and Co. likely knew that Long would have been way off the board by the time they were on the clock.
Eight long years later, following season after season of losing in St. Louis and ending with some injury-riddled seasons, Long hit the free-agent market and made a choice to become a New England Patriot.
Though his stats — four sacks, 35 tackles, one forced fumble, three passes defensed — wouldn’t catch too many eyes, he has played in all 18 games and has played an important role in a defense that ranked No. 1 in points allowed and No. 8 in yards allowed. Whether it’s setting the edge, collapsing the pocket, or forcing a running back to the inside of the field, Long has done whatever’s asked of him, and he’s been a big reason why the Patriots have found success on the defensive side of the ball.
On Tuesday, at the Patriots’ team hotel, Long reflected on his first year as a member of the Patriots, including what he’s learned about Bill Belichick and why he chose New England as his landing spot.
On his impressions of Bill Belichick prior to joining the team, compared to what he’s since learned…
“Before I got here, really, I obviously just considered he was probably the greatest coach of all time. I mean, being here, seeing him work every day, all three phases, kind of universal knowledge of the game, it’s just unbelievable. So that’s kind of what’s been my impression.”
On the lighter side of Bill Belichick that people might not see from the outside…
“He shows a side of being funny. He enjoys being around the guys, enjoys being around the other coaches. He just loves football, and I think he’s having the most fun when he’s doing that. So that’s why people might not see that side.”
On when he first saw Belichick’s lighter side…
“I can’t remember a moment. I knew other players, [Danny] Amendola, [Julian] Edelman, guys like that, so I already knew he was funny. So him being funny wasn’t a huge surprise to me. But it’s different when he makes you laugh almost every day.”
On Belichick’s particular sense of humor…
“It’s hard to describe how somebody is funny, isn’t it? You know what I mean? It’s probably a little dry. That’s some of the best humor.”
On how free agents can find success with the Patriots…
“I think just being able to come in and expect nothing and not have something in your head, like, ‘Well this is what it’s going to be.’ Because things change all the time here, and week to week your role can change and it’s not going to be the same all the time. So just being able to put the team first and truly make that deal with yourself, that everything you’re going to do for the next year — you know, I signed a one-year deal, and I knew that OK, for the next year, whatever it is, I’m going to put the team first the best I can.”
On going from a starring role to being more of a role player…
“Well it’s just, I was at a point in my career where I had to reprove myself as a player. The last two years were so garbage, with injuries and just being not myself, and I also wanted to win. So those aren’t necessarily two of the same paths. And if you can get as close as you can to the two, that’s what it’s been. It’s not going to be the place where you’re going to know your role or you’re going to always do the same thing or be doing what you had done in the past, but it’s a place where you’re going to win and Coach is going to put you in a good position to succeed.”
Prior to this season, Long had played 114 games in the NFL over eight years and had played exactly zero postseason games. This year, he’s gotten two playoff games under his belt, and on Sunday, he’ll play in the biggest game of his life.
For some perspective, the Patriots ended up drafting Jerod Mayo in that 2008 draft. Mayo put together a solid eight-year NFL career but is now retired. In fact, half of the players selected in the top 10 that year are out of football. (The No. 3 overall pick, coincidentally, will be starting at quarterback for Atlanta on Sunday.)
It’s been an arduous journey over the years for Long, but Sunday could very well provide the ultimate payoff.