FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Vinny Testaverde strode into his latest locker room, the gray flecks in his hair matching the color of the New England Patriots sweatshirt on his back.

Two days past his 43rd birthday, the still strong-armed quarterback stood at his locker with the No. 14 on it – his usual No. 16 already belongs to Matt Cassel – before his first practice with his new team Wednesday.

Testaverde was born more than three years before the first Super Bowl. He is the only player to have thrown a touchdown pass in each of his 19 NFL seasons. Why start again with his sixth team and the season more than half over?

“A lot of my friends and family asked me why am I still doing this,” Testaverde said. “The simple reason is because I still think I can go out on a field and be productive.”

Coach Bill Belichick hopes that never happens and told Testaverde that. If he does play, it means that both Tom Brady and Cassel will have been injured.

Testaverde is fine with that. He said he’ll help wherever he can. He can run scout team plays that Cassel usually handles and use his experience to help in quarterback meetings and on the sidelines.

At his age – and after coming out of retirement last season and playing six games with the New York Jets – he’s not about to get into a quarterback controversy. Belichick cut off any sign that one might start in the wake of the Patriots first back-to-back losses since December 2002 and consecutive poor games by Brady.

The coach who is very careful not to share information that might help an opponent was unusually direct at the beginning of his regular Wednesday news conference.

“Vinny would be the third quarterback,” Belichick said. “I hope he doesn’t play at all, but if something happens, at least we have ourselves protected there.”

A few minutes later, the clearly miffed coach shot down a question about whether Testaverde would compete with Cassel, a seventh-round pick last year who threw just 33 passes in college and has played in only two NFL games.

“Did I say that?” he said. “Well, I’m not saying that. I didn’t say it and don’t even start that. He’s an emergency quarterback. He’s the third quarterback. He’ll be inactive for every game as the third quarterback unless something happens to the other two guys.

“I don’t know how I can possibly be any clearer about that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any need to ask that question six more times and get the same answer. He’s the third quarterback.”

If an emergency quarterback enters the game before the fourth quarter, the player he replaced cannot return that day. Brady has been listed as probable on every injury report last season and this one but said Wednesday, “I’m not hurt at all.”

Testaverde is familiar with the offensive system, having played for Cleveland from 1993-95 when Belichick was head coach and for the Jets from 1998-99 when Belichick was assistant head coach. Belichick said the quarterback worked out in Foxborough several weeks ago and the Patriots had been considering signing him for four or five weeks.

But they had more pressing needs than a third quarterback. When they placed rookie tight end Garrett Mills, who hasn’t played all season, on injured reserve Tuesday, they filled his spot with Testaverde.

Having just two quarterbacks “kind of made us nervous,” Belichick said.

Testaverde stayed in shape, although not prime football shape, after last season. He threw the football in his backyard with his 10-year-old son Vincent Jr.

“I feel pretty good overall,” he said.

Testaverde won the Heisman Trophy at Miami then was the first overall pick by Tampa Bay in the 1987 draft. He has 269 touchdown passes, eighth in NFL history, and is sixth with 45,252 yards passing with the Buccaneers, Cleveland, Baltimore, Dallas and the Jets.

He rejoined the Jets last year after starter Chad Pennington and backup Jay Fiedler were injured in the same game.

“It’s been fun to have him here,” Brady said. “He’s still in great shape. I hope I look like that when I’m 43. I’ll probably be in a wheelchair. He’s a really nice guy. He has a bunch of familiarity with this offense.”

And an attachment to the game that remains strong as the years go by.

“I just love being around football,” Testaverde said. “I enjoy it. I feel like I can still do it. So I’m going to milk it to the very end.”

AP-ES-11-15-06 1812EST

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