Unexpected crossroads are part of the journey for pro athletes.
That some of those careers would suddenly sputter and cough when the athletes are cruising along a rising arc is often part of that plot as well.
Two years ago, Brandon LaFell was riding a wave that just about any NFL receiver would covet: He was a trusted target for Tom Brady in New England’s perpetually evolving offense during a Super Bowl championship season.
Late in that season, which was the best of his six-year career with 74 catches for 953 yards and 7 touchdowns, LaFell suffered a foot injury that nagged him throughout the playoffs and into the offseason.
Surgery was required after the Super Bowl, causing LaFell to miss the first several games of the 2015 season, and he wasn’t the same when he came back. In the world of the Patriots, if you aren’t producing, you aren’t staying around. So the former LSU star was released in March and had to hunt for a new home, which he found with Cincinnati.
That unexpected career change has paid off well. Playing a complementary role to Bengals’ star A.J. Green, LaFell has re-established himself as a reliable go-to threat with 27 catches for 372 yards and 4 scores in seven games.
“Things have been good with Brandon since he’s been here,” Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton said recently. “We’re very, very confident with what he’s been able to do and what he’s doing for us. He’s a guy you can trust and rely on to make plays for you.”
That’s sweet music to the ears of a man who had a similar bond in 2014 with Brady on a team with plenty of receiving options.
LaFell was the Patriots’ third leading pass-catcher that season behind Julian Edelman (92 catches for 972 yards) and Ron Gronkowsi (82 grabs for 1,124) and was on the receiving end of the game-winning TD against Baltimore in an AFC divisional playoff game and the first of Brady’s four scoring strikes in the a 28-24 Super Bowl victory against Seattle.
So, yes, his value as an NFL receiver was established. But getting released is a gut-punch to any veteran, and LaFell felt that pain.
Instead of letting the abrupt change derail his career, LaFell, who turns 30 later this week, turned a negative into positives, plural.
Besides bringing his on-field skills with him to the Bengals, LaFell has also stepped into a role as a leader for a young receiving corps. He is the oldest of the crew (Green turned 28 in July), and time spent with Carolina before his quick roller-coaster ride with New England gives LaFell some NFL/life experience to build from.
Sharing that knowledge is a part of his job that LaFell has embraced.
“I just tell them we’ve got to keep pressing and find a way to win a game no matter what coverage they’re playing, no matter if they’re grabbing and referees aren’t calling no calls,” LaFell said. “We’ve just got to find a way and it might be a different way every week, but we’ve got to find a way to win games.”
Having LaFell involved in the offense certainly could have an impact in Cincinnati winning games as well.
As Green has emerged the last several years, Dalton has struggled at times to find a secondary receiver. Three weeks ago he targeted LaFell 11 times and connected eight times for 68 yards and a pair of touchdowns. LaFell didn’t find much success against his old Patriots teammates on Oct. 16 (two for 13 yards), but bounced back with four catches for 83 yards against Cleveland with a 44-yard TD catch.
“Hopefully we can continue to build on that and continue to connect more,” LaFell said. “I still feel like I’m still working myself back into my full potential. I feel like I’m still working back into the way I used to play.”
LaFell began polishing his skills at LSU, where he was a three-year starter and twice earned All-SEC honors. He finished his career ranked No. 2 in the Tigers’ history in receiving touchdowns (25), third in receptions (175) and fifth in recieving yards (2,517).
Playing in Carolina gave LaFell a chance to learn from veteran Steve Smith, whom he calls one of his biggest influences.
The lessons from Smith: Play smart, play fast and play physical.
That was a perfect segue to the two seasons in the Patriots’ system with Brady, when LaFell said he honed skills he has worked on mastering for years, including route-running and route technique.
All those things were attractive to the Cincinnati brass when it came time to add a veteran receiver.
“He plays receiver physically with his body,” Bengals’ coach Marvin Lewis said. “He’s a guy who continues to improve as he goes. Any time he gets an opportunity, he makes good on them. He’s a true pro, which is important.”
And not a bad compass to follow when a player arrives a crossroads.