FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When assessing surprises in the first half of the Patriots' 2009 season, a few players emerge.
It has been unexpected to see Adalius Thomas and Shawn Springs with such limited action and production in recent weeks. On the flip side, Brandon McGowan and Tully Banta-Cain went from under-the-radar to high-level contributors rather quickly.
And not to be overlooked is a player who was mostly overlooked just eight weeks ago: tight end Benjamin Watson.
Written off by many as someone who should have been cut in early September -- and having some of his own doubts as to whether the Patriots were moving in a new direction -- Watson is having arguably the best season of his six-year career with the club. He is tied for the team lead with four touchdown receptions and is easily on pace to shatter his previous career high (6, in 2007).
"Ben's had a great year, making some really critical catches this season," said quarterback Tom Brady, who called Watson's 18-yard touchdown catch in the season opener the best play of Watson's NFL career. "He's been a huge part of this offense."
Unlike in past seasons, Watson had specifically prepared for the possibility he would not be.
He had considered how the Patriots aggressively signed tight end Chris Baker in free agency and then traded a fifth-round draft choice for Alex Smith. In one respect, Watson wondered if the Patriots were simply loading up at tight end with injuries in mind. But he also couldn't help but think management might be pushing him toward the exit, possibly terminating the final year of the six-year pact he signed as a rookie.
Looking back, the spiritual Watson feels God put him in a pressure situation similar to what coach Bill Belichick does to the team every day in practice. Belichick's idea is to put players in tough positions in practice and hope they grow from them, and in this case, Watson said he had to give up control and trust that the ultimate outcome would be what was meant to be.
Letting go hasn't always been easy, but Watson's altered approach, specifically off the field, has been evident to those closely following the team in recent years.
He seems more at ease in his surroundings, perhaps a result of the weight of great expectations being lifted off his shoulders. He also seems to understand the bigger picture better -- both in terms of football and with his faith -- after being with the club for 5½ seasons and experiencing dramatic football highs and lows, as well as personal milestones such as becoming a father.
In that sense, the 28-year-old Watson is one of the more compelling personal stories in the Patriots locker room.
When he arrived in 2004, he did so as a highly touted first-round draft choice (32nd overall) with what scouting reports termed freakish athletic talents. With that came expectations that he'd become another Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates, and the burden of those expectations has dogged him at times.
Watson never asked for those expectations, and one wonders had he been selected 10-20 spots later, in the middle of the second round, if the perception of his career might be different.
"No matter how wise you are as a rookie or second-year player, I think we definitely get caught up in the expectations we have and the expectations for other people, trying to please other people," he said. "As you get a little older, you sort of get to the point where you ask, 'What am I trying to please other people for? Why am I going home stressed out about what other people think of me?' You sort of move and grow a little past that."
Watson said his wife, Kirsten, has been instrumental in his growth in that area.
"When you really try to take that approach, it does take some of the pressure off you," he said. "Sometimes I'd get really focused on the little picture -- stuff going on in training camp, an injury, a good game I had, a bad game I had -- and that's something I've really tried to work on, to say 'It's OK to mess up, it's OK to not be perfect all the time.' So maybe I've been more relaxed at times. That's always been my battle."
Watson calls himself a perfectionist and acknowledges that there are times he still gets tense and upset when things don't go right. Through the first eight weeks of the season, however, most everything has gone his way.
He has 15 receptions (compared to Baker's 8), is averaging an impressive 14.8 yards per grab, and has remained healthy in positioning himself well in a year his contract expires. Watson and the Patriots haven't discussed an extension at this time.
"Of course you want to have a good last year of your contract, because the hope is you can get another contract from that team, or another team. You want that last thing on your résumé to be good," he said.
"It has been a long six years, and now this is an exciting time because you don't know how it will go -- you could be here, you could be somewhere else. It's sort of like your senior year in college. You love where you are at the time, but you know this certain chapter of your life might be coming to an end."
Some thought it would be ending back in September, when he was playing in the second half of the team's final preseason game alongside "teammates" who were going to be out of a job in a few days. At that point, it looked bleak for Watson.
But just like one of the signature plays of his career, in which he chased down Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey in a 100-yard sprint, Watson has almost come out of nowhere to make his mark.