Hunter Henry’s final catch of Week 17 did not improve his stat-line, but it sure was a big one.
With the New England Patriots sending their hands team onto the field late in the fourth quarter to defend a Miami Dolphins onside kick and preserve a 23-21 win, the veteran tight end was out there as well. It was just his 24th special teams snap of the season, but Henry did not panic when the ball came his way.
He calmly plucked it out of the air and went to the ground to seal the Patriots’ eighth win of the season. The play itself was a welcome break from the team’s recent late-game drama.
It also was on brand for Henry, as his quarterback said during his postgame press conference.
“Hunter is just a great all-around, savvy football player. He has a great understanding of not only the tight end position, but, for example, that right there: staying calm, fielding the ball,” said Mac Jones. “Not the easiest thing to do when the game is on the line. That’s just who Hunter is. He’s a laid-back, easygoing guy. I love Hunter. Excited to grow with him throughout the years, all that. He did a great job.”
With fellow tight end Jonnu Smith out with a concussion, the Patriots asked a lot of Henry against the Dolphins. Not only was he out there for the final onside kick, he also played all 60 of the team’s offensive snaps — a first for him since arriving in New England on a three-year $37.5 million contract during the 2021 offseason.
Henry finished the game with five catches for 52 yards, ranking second on the team in both categories. He also was asked to run-block on 21 of his snaps.
“I feel like a guy that this team can rely on, to be dependable in the run game, pass game, protection,” Henry told reporters in the locker room after the game. “I try to do as much as I can for this team.”
On Sunday, that included taking the field in the kicking game. While it was only one snap, Henry made sure to make it count.
Of course, the Patriots putting him in this position in the first place is a credit to his preparation. The 28-year-old has given the team the confidence to use him in such a capacity in a high-stakes situation.
“Hunter’s done a good job for us there over the last two years,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “Good hands, good judgement, good ball skills, good decision-maker. Sometimes, the ball’s near the sideline, that’s part of it too. That was a big play for us. You can’t underestimate that. I’d say that’s a game-winning play right there. ...
“Those are the ones where, if you’re the end guy, you’ve got to be careful. If you let it go, the outside guy can get it even though we’re trying to block him; he’s still out there pretty wide. If you play it and it ricochets, then the ball’s in play, so it’s tough. That ball had some speed to it, but it wasn’t kicked hard enough to where you were sure it was just going to go straight out of bounds before anybody would have a chance to get it. He made a real good play.”
While his offensive production took a step back from last year — he has 35 catches for 467 yards and two touchdowns — Henry continues to be an important member of the Patriots’ operation. That is mostly true for his offensive contributions, but every now and then also for his role in the kicking game.
Sunday’s game was proof of that.