Patriot games pay off for Purnell

Tenure with `Tuna' prepares tight end for shot with Ravens

August 04, 1999|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Here was the situation: The score was tied at 17 on a Monday night in September two seasons ago in the first of the now-familiar Tuna Bowls between the New York Jets and New England Patriots.

The Jets were defending a two-tight-end set by the Patriots late in the game. On one side was All-Pro Ben Coates, an important part of the Patriots' Super Bowl run the year before under Bill Parcells, nicknamed "Tuna," then in his first season as Jets coach.

On the other end was little-used, second-year tight end Lovett Purnell, who is now vying for a spot with the Ravens.

But on that particular play, the go-to guy was Purnell. He caught a 10-yard touchdown pass, Purnell's first of his career.

"Bill had left us," Purnell said. "I was glad that I was able to come out and catch a big touchdown against him. For me, that was a big highlight. I know my first year I came in, I wasn't ready to play. Then I showed Bill the next year that I worked hard and was ready to play."

That was the first of five touchdowns Purnell caught over the next two seasons in a formation New England used many times. It gave Purnell a chance to get some game experience, which he said makes him ready to compete for a starting spot with the Ravens.

Purnell, 6 feet 3, 245 pounds, caught 17 passes for 149 yards in his three years with the Patriots.

"Playing with Ben made it tough for a lot of teams," Purnell said. "They would key in on him, and I would get wide open. I'm going to miss that a lot."

Purnell said Coates, more than anything, taught him how to be consistent throughout a game.

"Ben and I were close. He called me before I left New England. He didn't want me to leave, but I had no choice," said Purnell, who was traded to the Ravens for a sixth-round pick in the 1999 draft. "It was a better situation for me here. The coach [Brian Billick] wanted me. Having me and Ben on the same team was a good experience, but it is time for me to move on."

Tight ends coach Wade Harman said he can see the game savvy Purnell has developed. He said Purnell has looked good his first week of practice.

"Being in New England and in that backup role, I think he is anxious to get the opportunity to perform," Harman said.

"You can tell he has knowledge beyond just what you tell him. He's the kind of guy that has football smarts and understands things. He can react on the run. He understands what the offense and defense is trying to do."

Purnell does come to Baltimore with more uncertainty at his position than he had with the Patriots. In New England, he was a solid No. 2, starting five times last season when Coates got hurt.

With the Ravens, three other free-agent tight ends were brought in. If he doesn't win the job, Purnell won't have the advantage of seeing many two-tight-end sets under Billick.

But Purnell said the different system doesn't hurt him. He said Billick's offense will give the tight ends more of a chance to catch the ball across the middle, leading to big plays.

"If you look at their tight end [Minnesota's last season, when Billick was offensive coordinator], he caught a lot of balls across the middle," Purnell said. "The thing about Billick is you have to run your routes exactly where they need to be run. It's not a `just get open.' "

Getting open is something Purnell had a knack for doing in college at West Virginia. He finished his career with 79 receptions, ranking 10th all-time for the Mountaineers, for 1,173 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The question -- and where he said he's improved the most since college -- was his blocking. Harman said the Ravens weren't sure about how good a blocker he was during minicamp, but have seen tenacity since the team put on pads.

"He's been going right at people and doesn't back off an inch," Harman said. "We've been pleased with his effort so far."

Ravens camp

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Directions from Baltimore: Take Interstate-695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 west to Route 31 south. At blinking yellow light, turn left (Route 31). At first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. Proceed up the hill. The parking entrance is on the left. Information: 410-261-FANS Pub Date: 8/04/99

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