EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Bill Belichick was in an unusually jolly mood as he walked to the podium following Thursday night’s New England Patriots preseason finale at MetLife Stadium.
“Well,” Belichick said with a smile to kick off his postgame news conference, “that was one of the most exciting plays I’ve seen in preseason, I must say.”
He wasn’t exaggerating.
The play in question was the unlikeliest of Patriots touchdowns: an 86-yard sprint by seventh-round draft pick Danny Etling, New England’s third-string rookie quarterback.
With less than five minutes remaining in the Patriots’ 17-12 win over the New York Giants, Etling faked a handoff to running back Ralph Webb, pulled the ball back when he saw the edge defender bite and took off down the sideline, fooling the entire left side of New York’s defense.
Seconds later, Etling — who never was considered an elite athlete during his college stops at Purdue and LSU — was in the clear, galloping untouched for one of the longest touchdown runs ever by an NFL quarterback.
“I just took off down the sideline,” a grinning Etling said after the game. “It was a great job by the running back and the offensive line there to sell it and make sure that there was no one there to make a tackle on me, and then I think I looked back about seven times and finally crossed the end zone.”
“Great call by Chad (O’Shea),” Belichick added, referring to the Patriots wide receivers coach who handled play-calling duties Thursday night. “And Danny’s a little bit faster than maybe we thought he was. … When’s the last time a quarterback ran for 85 yards for the New England Patriots? At least 20 years, I know that. Maybe (Steve) Grogan, (Jim) Plunkett.”
The highlight-reel score was the obvious highlight of an otherwise uneven night for Etling, who had played just 19 total snaps over the Patriots’ first three preseason games. He sailed several passes in the first half, resulting in two interceptions, but settled after halftime, completing 6 of 8 passes over the final two quarters to finish 18 of 32 for 157 yards and one touchdown.
Etling, who called his first start at a pro “a learning experience,” said his teammates and coaches helped him overcome some early anxiety.
“I just wanted to go out there and learn and continue to try to figure out how to do my job when the lights come on,” Etling said. “I thought I could have done better in the first half — just a little nerves. Credit to my coaches and my teammates. (They) just got me settled down, and I’m like, ‘All right, now let’s just play football.’ ”
Save for a 45-yard bomb to wide receiver K.J. Maye that set up New England’s first touchdown, the majority of Etling’s standout plays involved him scrambling outside the pocket. He evaded a rush to find wideout Devin Lucien for a first down early in the game, picked up first downs of his own with runs of 14 and 13 yards and even served as a lead blocker on a 16-yard gain by running back Khalfani Muhammad.
Etling, who led all Patriots rushers both in this game (113 yards) and in the preseason as a whole (120 yards), absorbed big hits on two of his scrambles, impressing Belichick with his willingness to sacrifice his body.
“I thought the run he had on, whatever it was, third-and-10, 11, where he put his shoulder down, took on the tackler and got the first down, that was a big run, too,” the Patriots coach said. “He’s a tough kid. He competes hard. I thought he handled himself pretty well out there.”
While there’s a chance the Patriots decide to keep Etling on their 53-man roster, he’s much more likely to land on the practice squad, considering New England already has a superstar starting quarterback in Tom Brady and a reliable backup in Brian Hoyer.
That’s a worry for another day, though. Etling, whose parents made the trip from Terre Haute, Ind., for Thursday’s game, is going to enjoy this one first.
“I was just excited to play a football game again,” he said. “It was amazing. I feel humbled just to get another opportunity. Even at LSU, they would say, ‘Is this your last game ever?’ And I just got to play another one. So that was a pretty exciting feeling for me, and I hope I get to continue to play football for as long as I can. … I just love football.”