Football rosters can be filled with little lies.
The New England Patriots once listed running back Danny Woodhead at 5-foot-9. He’s closer to 5-foot-7. Officially, nose tackle Vince Wilfork weighed in at 325 pounds. There were times when he crept up to 350.
Then there’s Matthew Slater. He’s a 10-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro selection as a special teamer. But on the Patriots roster, he’s in his 15th season of being listed as a wide receiver, which is a bit of a stretch.
When you consider that the last time Slater caught an NFL pass was a week after Mac Jones’ 13th birthday, it might as well be an outright fabrication at this point.
Slater, now 37, was a fifth-round draft pick out of UCLA back in 2008. With the Bruins, he was a kick returner, special teamer, reserve receiver and part-time defensive back. He finished his college career without a reception.
Still, he was labeled as a wide receiver since arriving in New England. In that time, he has just one NFL regular-season reception on his resume: a diving 46-yard reception deep over the middle from Tom Brady in the opening game of the 2011 season.
What are the chances that the Patriots try to get him a second reception before his storied career is over?
“Anything’s possible, man. Anything’s possible,” receivers coach Troy Brown said.
However, there’s just one problem that might stop this idea in its tracks.
“He doesn’t want it,” longtime teammate Devin McCourty said.
He doesn’t want it!?
“You can ask him. But I don’t think he has any interest and playing offense other than being out there in a victory formation,” McCourty added. “I think he’s found a home in what he does for a living now.”
So, let’s ask him: Hey, Matthew Slater, is it time to start a campaign to get you another catch as a receiver?
“I think that campaign has died long ago,” Slater said. “It’s kind of funny to think about. You know, my career has been so very unique. When I hear stuff like that, it just makes me thankful that I’ve been able to have this experience and be a receiver without being a receiver.”
Slater added that was a “brief” period of time when Brady and former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were pushing to try and get him a touchdown on offense. It didn’t quite work out. Now, Slater says it’s all good. He’s happy with his role.
It probably helped that he finally scored his first NFL touchdown in 2019 off of a blocked punt.
Slater’s shortage of receptions hasn’t been for lack of trying. He’s been targeted eight times in the regular season. There were also three times in the playoffs when Brady thought it was a good idea to send a deep ball his way.
But those attempts have long since vanished. He hasn’t been targeted with a pass since the 2016 season. The last time he officially touched the ball on offense was a five-yard carry in garbage time in a Week 5 win over the Cleveland Browns that same year.
No, these days, there’s only one scenario where Slater lines up on the offensive side of the ball.
“Victory formation,” Slater said, referring to his role as the deep man behind the quarterback on kneel-downs. “If they need me to go in there and throw a block, crack a safety in an emergency situation, I can do that. But don’t look for this guy to be running any routes any time soon.”
Slater gestures down to his hands, which have crashed into countless helmets over the years. They feature fingers that have clearly seen their fair share of breaks.
“See these fingers there. I don’t know if those fingers are catching very many balls,” Slater said with a laugh. “No, look, I’m thrilled in my role. I’ve always said that, I’m always felt that way. Obviously, there was a time in my career when that was something I wanted. But where I’m at now, I’m really satisfied with what I’m doing.”
Slater added, if special teams coordinator Cam Achord wants to draw up a fake punt to try and get him the ball, he can go ahead.
However, that seems unlikely. Earlier this year, Bill Belichick basically called Slater the Lawrence Taylor of special teamers (incredible praise coming from him). Slater has enough trouble trying to get free from teams trying to smother him as a gunner, much less trying to get open to catch a pass from a punter.
“I think the one thing that like you don’t notice, unless you’re on the field, is the energy guys come out with to block him,” McCourty said. “He’s getting doubled and guys are trying to take him to the sideline. That’s all because I know all week, in their film room, their special teams coach is showing every highlight of him saying he’s probably the greatest special teams player of all time. I think he takes pride in that. I think he enjoys doing it.”
Slater still wears a receiver’s number and wears a white jersey in practice, marking him as an offensive player. But watching him on the fields behind Gillette Stadium, you only ever see him working in special teams drills.
It’s gotten to the point where even Patriots teammates rib him for wearing the wrong color.
“They always mess with me, because I have the white jersey,” Slater says. “They’re like, ‘When are you gonna get that jersey turned to a blue jersey? You know you’re not an offensive player.’”
Earlier this year, McCourty was asked about which offensive player the defense would most want to poach in an emergency situation. When Slater was floated as a coach’s answer, McCourty scoffed.
“That doesn’t count. He’s a defensive player. They just give him a white jersey, which is brutal,” McCourty said with a laugh.
If anything, Slater is closer to playing defense than offense these days. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Slater has served as an emergency defensive back before in New England. He even started a game at safety back in 2011 against the Indianapolis Colts. He finished with seven tackles and a forced fumble as the Patriots won, 31-24.
McCourty was in his second season when Slater made the temporary move to defense. He’s still working to make it happen again.
“I try to get him to come play safety all the time. But he has no interest,” McCourty said.
It still might happen. Slater says with a smile that “there may or may not be a defensive situation” that he’s involved in.
For now, Slater’s role is almost exclusively on special teams. But he still carries immense respect from players on both offense and defense for his accomplishments and his leadership — and the captain feels it.
“It’s nice to be embraced by both sides of the ball, to be appreciated by the guys on this team,” Slater said. “It means a lot.”
Slater’s road to respected captain in the Patriots locker room wasn’t an easy one. Back in his early years, the young receiver had to fight his way onto the roster and earn a spot.
It wasn’t always easy. Just ask Jerod Mayo, who was drafted the same year as Slater and now serves as a Patriots linebackers coach.
“When Slate and I came in together, I mean, I looked at him like he had no chance of making the team, seriously,” Mayo said with a laugh.
That’s not to say Slater never had any talent at the receiver position. As the receivers coach, Brown doesn’t do that much work with Slater these days. However, the special teams ace does come up every now in position meetings.
Brown says that he dusts off some old tapes to show that Slater could fly downfield on offense.
“He has gone out and caught some big passes back in the day,” Brown said. “I got a few clips and I still show to the guys every once in a while of Slater getting it done on the deep ball.”
At this point, there’s not a whole lot left for Slater to prove in his career. He’s one of the most accomplished special teams aces of all time. He has more Pro Bowls than his father, Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater. He’s also got a hat trick of Super Bowl rings.
Sure, things didn’t work out at his original position. With everything that Slater has done, the idea of trotting him out on offense to catch a pass as a lifetime achievement award doesn’t seem too likely.
“I don’t really think if he did have a second catch he would be like, ‘Man I’m so happy I got my second,” McCourty said. “I think he loves going out there in victory formation and being a demon out there on special teams.
As for Slater, his take on it more or less sums up the last decade and a half of football for him.
“I think we’ll just stick with covering the kicks for now.”