The names are starting to sound as if they were generated by a PlayStation algorithm, but here is what I can tell you about New England Patriots cornerback Leonard Johnson: He is apparently an actual human being.
Here is what else I can tell you about Leonard Johnson: He went to Iowa State, and until recently he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and he was apparently a favorite of former Bucs coach Greg Schiano, one of those confidants of Patriots coach Bill Belichick who has a way of funneling him talent in a season where the Patriots are in desperate need of it.
I could probably tell you more about Leonard Johnson, who signed with the Patriots on Wednesday and made big plays a few days later; I could even attempt to humanize him for you. Then again, the thing we’ve learned about the Patriots at this point is that the names – and the stories behind those names – don’t really matter. After all, humanity has never been their primary concern, and it sure isn’t their concern now, in a season defined by throwing an even colder shoulder toward the outside world than what we’ve seen in the past. On Sunday night, after losing two straight games, the Patriots found themselves again, defeating the Houston Texans 27-6 on the road, moving their record to 11-2 and clinching a playoff berth for the 13th time in Belichick’s 16 seasons as head coach.
They did this despite being depleted of talent, largely on defense. They did this even though they lost four more players to injury Sunday night, including running back LeGarrette Blount, who was already the backup to running back Dion Lewis, who is out for the season. And yet the Patriots were still dominant on defense against a Texans team that had started to roll after a slow start to the year; the Patriots still managed to shut down one of the best receivers in the league, DeAndre Hopkins, and they still managed to prevent Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer from making big plays downfield time and again.
These were the Patriots we had grown accustomed to seeing throughout the first 10 contests of the season, when they didn’t lose a single game. These were the Patriots who seemed to atone for any mistakes they made – i.e., a third-quarter turnover on special teams – by making a play to atone for them – i.e., stopping the Texans on a fourth down shortly after that turnover. But perhaps most important, these were no longer the Gronkless Patriots. Two weeks after it appeared that Rob Gronkowski himself had been sacrificed in order to feed this angry beast in search of Roger Goodell’s self-respect, there was Gronk, back on the field again, reopening the possibilities within the entire New England offense.
On Sunday night, recovered from a bone bruise that was apparently one of the most painful injuries of a career defined largely by pain (both receiving and inflicting it), Gronk did just enough. He caught four passes for 87 yards, including a touchdown near the end of the first half on one of those drives that make the Patriots so Patriots-like. That score turned a 10-6 game into a 17-6 game before the half was over; it deflated a Texans team that probably felt like it had as decent a shot as anyone would against the Patriots coming into this game.
The Texans, of course, are coached by Bill O’Brien, who was once a consigliere to Belichick. But the thing about the Patriots empire is that it has yet to be replicated by any of the assistants who have departed New England. There’s something singular about the way Belichick seems to utilize the talent he has, whatever that may be. In this case, he’s working with far less than he normally would be; in this case, he’s had to turn to waiver wires and deep cuts in order to remain competitive, and yet it all seems to be working out just fine for a team that is nowhere near finished this season. You may have never heard of Leonard Johnson, but you probably hadn’t heard of Malcolm Butler before him. And there may be more no-names to come, because this is what the Patriots do: They beat you with anyone they can find.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb