HOUSTON — Eugene Wilson joined the New England Patriots with the wide-eyed excitement of any rookie. That lasted exactly one game.
After spending all of training camp — all of his life, really — learning to become an NFL cornerback, the Patriots switched Wilson to safety just after the season started. From then, it was back to work trying to learn a position he had never played before.
"They told me the day after the Buffalo game — my first game," Wilson said. "At first, I thought it was a joke."
It wasn't. It was his introduction to life under Bill Belichick, and Wilson gave the exact answer the coach was looking for.
"I said, 'All right, as long as I'm going to be able to get out there and help us win,' " Wilson recalled this week. "Coming in as a rookie, I was looking forward to playing corner. The thought of safety never crossed my mind. I took it for what it was and tried to make the best of the situation. I feel like it turned out pretty well."
It sure did.
The Patriots are in the Super Bowl with a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season. Wilson tied for the rookie lead with four interceptions while starting the last 15 games of the season — all of them at safety.
In that sense, Wilson was the picture of stability: Only Tedy Bruschi stayed in one place the whole season, and even he has to change positions when the Patriots switch from an alignment with three linemen to one with four.
"You have to be kind of versatile to play in this system," linebacker Willie McGinest said as the Patriots prepared to play the Carolina Panthers. "That's what makes us a good, sound group. Everybody depends on everybody else."
Belichick is considered a defensive guru, with schemes that rely less on superstar talent than the kind that can be plugged into roles where they're needed. Linebackers Bruschi, McGinest and Mike Vrabel were all lineman at some point in their careers, so they are equally comfortable in the pass rush and pass coverage.
"We are interchangeable players," Bruschi said.
That versatility also allows the Patriots to switch their alignment without having to substitute players. Not only does it make it easier for the defense to react to offensive switches, it can also make it difficult for the opponent to figure out what the defense is doing.
The Patriots like to play up the team concept — they declined individual introductions before the Super Bowl two years ago — and on defense it's easy to see why.
"Football is the ultimate team sport. We believe that," player personnel director Scott Pioli said. "Individuals go to Pro Bowls, and teams win championships."