logoby Dan Snapp

Prior to the start of the 2000 season, the Patriots played in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The game marked Bill Belichick’s Patriots head coaching debut, Tom Brady’s first action (he went 3-for-4 for 28 yards), Dennis Miller’s Monday Night Football premiere, and Miller’s lone instance of being funny (“It’s surprisingly hard to find good Cantonese here,” he quipped) in his entire MNF run.

Kevin Faulk was a footnote then, an “undersized” second-year back fighting for playing time against free agent Raymont Harris and rookie J.R. Redmond.

Back then, the yearly running back question was “Who will replace Curtis Martin?” There was Robert Edwards in ’98 (before his sad beach volleyball injury), Terry Allen in ’99, and this game appeared to be Harris’s audition for the role, with nine carries for 58 yards.

But Faulk showed the first signs of his future role with the team, taking a pass from Michael Bishop for a 25-yard TD, and returning a punt 22 yards to set up another score. This prompted Miller to suggest Faulk might be the answer to the Martin question. It was a throwaway line, one of those designed to fete the players in front of him in an otherwise dull game.

Nobody could have imagined then that Faulk would come to mean more to the team than Martin ever did, nor entertain us more than Miller ever could.

Kevin Faulk is the most important running back in Patriots history. Others were more athletic, more talented, more accomplished. Certainly he’s been outrushed by a slew of them. But no back has been more pivotal to the Patriots’ success.

Sunday’s performance – laying out for 11-yard third down conversion and reaching behind and down for a fingertip grab three plays later – only punctuated that importance. As Christopher Price noted here yesterday, Faulk’s been 13-for-13 on passes thrown to him the past two games. What does it say about him that that stat’s not the least bit surprising?

Just about every Patriots fan has underrated Faulk at some point in his career. It was obvious he wasn’t a lead back in this league, and his six fumbles in 2000 led to a probably undeserved charge that he was “fumble-prone.” It wasn’t until the 2003 season, when he helped save games against Denver and Houston (just about singlehandedly in that one), that he cemented his role on the team and in our hearts.

In CBS’s post-game wrapup Sunday, Boomer Esiason said someday Gillette Stadium would see a “Kevin Faulk Day.” It was a nice sentiment, and an inevitable honor. But it’s not enough.

There’s no worthy place of honor for a player like Faulk: passing game specialist, productive punt returner, and blitz picker-upper extraordinaire. He has nowhere near the rushing nor receiving stats for the Hall of Fame, of course. There will be a “Kevin Faulk Day” and he’ll own a spot in the Patriots “Ring of Honor”, or whatever the Patriots will call it.

Perhaps we could call him the “best third-down back of all time”, although probably a dubious honor, connoting an inability to be a lead back. Plus, somebody like Joe Washington might be the holder of that title.

It may be left to honor him in our memories. Tell us your favorite Kevin Faulk moments here.