ATLANTA — In 2000, Antowain Smith, a running back who had been the Buffalo Bills’ first-round draft pick three years earlier, was unceremoniously cut by the team. Smith had been buried on the Bills’ bench.
The next season, Smith landed in the training camp of the New England Patriots, even though some of his friends wondered why he wanted to play for a team coming off a 5-11 season and for a head coach, Bill Belichick, who seemed on his way to getting fired by a second N.F.L. team.
The Patriots already had two, young homegrown running backs, so what kind of chance would they give a veteran discarded by the second-rate Bills?
Smith became the first conspicuous castoff to end up playing a prominent role in a Patriots championship. In New England’s first Super Bowl victory in 2002, it was Smith — not the St. Louis Rams star Marshall Faulk — who became the game’s leading rusher, with 92 yards.
“I turned out to be the perfect fit that they needed,” Smith recalled in a telephone interview Thursday. “Belichick told me when I got there: ‘Do what you’re told and you’ll have a role.’ He spoke the truth.”
Such surprises have become a staple of the Belichick era: The Patriots win a Super Bowl when someone they found languishing on the waiver wire — or ignored until the bottom of the draft — ends up taking a star turn on pro football’s biggest stage.
It does not happen by accident, former Patriots say.
“There were always younger guys that maybe got overlooked because there was a piece of their game that hadn’t been fully realized, but Bill sees the potential,” said Matt Light, a former Patriots offensive tackle. Light was not one of the lesser-known players, but he saw many of them suddenly appear in the locker room.
“Bill can wait on them, and then he can insert them into roles clearly defined,” Light continued. “Their role is always very well communicated, and they can go out and experience some success. And it’s amazing what success will do for a guy off the street.”
Smith wasn’t the only unexpected hero of the 2002 Super Bowl. David Patten, a former Arena Football League player who spent four mostly mediocre seasons with two other N.F.L. teams before joining New England, scored the team’s only offensive touchdown in the game when he faked and slipped behind a defender for an 8-yard reception in the end zone that put the Patriots ahead by 11 points.
Patten made 165 catches for the Patriots over four seasons, and 15 more in the playoffs.
Fast forward to the next Patriots Super Bowl victory, in 2004. Wide receiver David Givens was not a reject from another N.F.L. team; he came to the Patriots as the 253rd overall pick of the 2002 draft, taken in the seventh round. He played very little in his first two seasons, catching just 43 passes. But in the 2004 Super Bowl against the Carolina Panthers, Givens emerged from the shadows to make a 5-yard touchdown reception that gave New England a 14-7 lead just before halftime.
Givens had five catches for 69 yards in the game, none more important than an 18-yard reception on third-and-9 that put his team 3 yards from the end zone. It set up the Patriots’ final touchdown, with less than three minutes left.
The litany of Patriots who were shrewdly lured from other teams and then became Super Bowl heroes includes Corey Dillon, who was one of the best running backs in the N.F.L. for six years, until his production for the Cincinnati Bengals dropped precipitously in 2003.
Dillon’s career seemed in jeopardy as he approached his 30th birthday, and then the Patriots traded for him before the 2004 season. Dillon had the best season of his career and led all rushers in the 2005 Super Bowl. He scored a touchdown and ran for 9 key yards in the Patriots’ final scoring drive in a 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 2015, the surprise performer was Malcolm Butler, an undrafted, reserve rookie cornerback whose goal-line interception averted certain defeat against the Seattle Seahawks.
Two seasons later, Belichick would use his background as a college lacrosse player to recruit an unlikely big-moment star. Chris Hogan, who played lacrosse at Penn State, reinvented himself as a wide receiver, playing four years for the Buffalo Bills, but they made no attempt to match the Patriots’ free-agent contract offer to Hogan before the 2016 season.
In the Super Bowl that season, Hogan made a pivotal, 16-yard, third-down catch that led to the tying touchdown against Atlanta late in the fourth quarter. Then in overtime, Hogan had an 18-yard reception that helped vault New England to its fifth Super Bowl victory.
“I think the Patriots have shown an ability to see guys for what they can ultimately be, and then they tailor the coaching to see if they can make it happen,” Hogan said here in Atlanta on Thursday. “The idea is to make you better at what you already do well.”
Matt Chatham, who played linebacker on three Patriots championship teams from 2002 to 2005, came to New England after he was cut by St. Louis in his rookie year. He had a slightly different take on how the Patriots continually find and polish diamonds in the rough.
“They’re not going to put you out in some sort of uncomfortable situation where athletically you wouldn’t be able to do it,” Chatham said. “That said, they may find the things that you do better than anyone else that another scheme doesn’t highlight.”
Chatham added, “Then they find a role that fits that.”
Smith, who got in nearly on the ground floor of the Belichick regime, said he thought it came down to Belichick’s renowned fastidiousness and punitive nature.
“People call Belichick a defensive coach, but if you think he’s not paying attention to everything the offense and special teams are doing, then just try making a mistake in practice on one of those plays,” Smith said. “You’ll be in his doghouse real quick. And he’ll tell you that you’re in the doghouse and then he’ll let you sit on the bench and think about it for a while.
“When you get another chance, or your only other chance, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re ready to make something of it.”
Ben Shpigel and Doris Burke contributed reporting.
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