It's hard to overstate how impressive it was that Brandon Tate played the way he did on Sunday.
Football is almost as much about scheme and system as it is about talent. Sure, the best players can thrive on pure athletic ability, but for most players -- particularly wide receivers, whose job is to be where their quarterback expects them to be -- flawless execution of plays is just as important as any 40-yard dash time.
Tate didn't participate in minicamps during the summer. Tate didn't participate in training camp in August and September. Tate didn't participate in any of the team's first six games. Tate didn't even participate in practice until last Wednesday -- and that was his first football action of any kind since he'd torn up his knee returning a punt with North Carolina more than a year ago.
All he'd done was sit in the film room and do as much studying as he possibly could.
"I've put myself in some of the other guys' shoes," Tate said, "and when the coach talks to them, I make it seem like he's talking to me, too."
But film can't compare to the real thing. He experienced the real thing for the first time on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- and it wasn't just in a limited role, either. With the Patriots' corps of wide receivers depleted by ineffectiveness and injury, Tate had to step right in as the team's fourth wide receiver.
"It's faster than college, I know that," he said. "Everybody's bigger, and everybody knows their assignments. You've got to go out there and run your route the right way and be crisp on everything."
Tate didn't catch any passes against the Bucs on Sunday. (He was the target when Brady threw his second interception of the game.) But the first time he took the field in an NFL game, he took an end-around handoff from Tom Brady and rushed for an 11-yard gain behind the blocks of tight end Ben Watson and wide receiver Sam Aiken. He also returned a kickoff for 22 yards -- something he'll likely do more and more as the season progresses.
"That felt real good, man," Tate said. "I ain't been out there on the field for so long -- and the trip to London was also big for me, too. I just soaked it all in and enjoyed it."
He now has a week of practice under his belt and an NFL game on film that he and his coaches can critique. Even better, he has nine more games to demonstrate why the Patriots considered him a steal when they snatched him up in the third round of the draft.
"I'll just keep on trying to get better in practice," he said. "It starts in practice -- I'll just go out there and work hard and get better and better."