The temptation is strong to liken Ben Coates of the New England Patriots to another tight end, Mark Bavaro, the former New York Giant and Cleveland Brown who's now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Coates is 6'5, Bavaro 6'4, and each weighs 245. Both were middle-round draft picks made into stars by Bill Parcells's tight end-oriented offense. Both are good blockers with soft hands. Both possess a terrific work ethic.
There is one difference: speed. Coates has more of it than Bavaro, and that's why, in his fourth year as a Patriot, he's on his way to the best season a tight end has ever had. "All I know is he outran [ Buffalo Bill cornerback] Nate Odomes last year for a touchdown," Bill linebacker Darryl Talley says, "and not many people outrun Nate Odomes."
A fifth-round pick in 1991 from Livingstone ( N.C.) College, a Division II school, Coates has an AFC-best 51 receptions—37 of which have produced first downs. If he averages five catches a game in the Patriots' nine remaining games, he will break Todd Christensen's NFL tight end record of 95, established in 1986.
Midway through the fourth quarter of the Pats' game against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe faded back and hit Coates at the New England 10. Three Dolphins hit Coates between the 10 and the 14 and could not stop him. At the 31-yard line four Dolphins converged on Coates. A fifth, cornerback J.B. Brown, joined the melee, grabbing Coates by the waist. These five men combined to push Coates out of bounds at the 34. "Wow!" tackle Pat Harlow screamed to Bledsoe, trailing the play. "That guy's a man!"
Coates, a quiet, serious fellow, seems genuinely unimpressed with his accomplishments. Trailed by the media after one early-season game and pressed for a comment on his wonderful start, Coates shrugged and said, "If you can play, you can play." You can play, Ben. You can play.