The New England Patriots 2008 season has been one of the most hotly discussed topics in newspapers and blogs. Personnel wise the Patriots have been devastated by injuries to key players. The Patriots, over the past decade, have been one of the most masterful teams in being able to plug in the next man up and getting great play and production out of backups. This year has been dominated by three key storylines:
- Tom Brady being knocked out for the entire season with a severe knee injury and the development of Matt Cassel. Tom Brady’s injury has clearly been the main storyline for the Patriots this year, and in fact the entire NFL. The Patriots lost one of the all-time great quarterbacks for the entire season and have to rely on a Matt Cassel, who prior to 2008 had not started a game since high school.
- The aging defense. It’s no secret that last year the prolific offense hid weaknesses on defense. Clearly the defense is aging, especially at the linebacker position. This was a hot topic coming into the season and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. The injury to Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison further weakened the defense.
- Weak secondary. With Asante Samuel leaving via free agency the secondary has been significantly depleted. Deltha O’Neal doesn’t seem to be able to cover even pedestrian receivers and Ellis Hobbs is a second tier cornerback at best. With the injury to Rodney Harrison at strong safety, we are left with James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather, neither who have proven to be solid run stoppers.
The one area that has not been discussed as much is the state of New England’s running game and what it means for the team in 2008 and beyond. Just as with other parts of the team, the running game has also been decimated by injuries. Frankly, looking at the players New England is able to put on the field, a 7-5 record doesn’t look so bad.
New England Patriots Running Backs: Start of Season
At the start of the 2008 season the one area that most fans were excited about is the corps of running backs New England had entering the season. The Patriots started with five backs on the active roster, all expecting to contribute significantly to the running game during the season.
- Laurence Maroney. Maroney was the Patriots first round draft pick in 2006. Coming into the season most thought a healthy Maroney would be the primary back, giving the Patriots a dangerous running game to go along with its prolific passing offense. With his size, speed, and moves, the physically gifted Maroney should be a top tier back in the NFL. Unfortunately, because of injury, Maroney has only showed flashes of what he is capable of. This year, because of another shoulder injury, Maroney has played in only three games and was eventually placed on injured reserve.
- Sammy Morris. Morris has been a career backup in Buffalo, Miami and New England. New England picked Morris up last year via free agency and he filled in nicely for Maroney early this season. This year Morris has played in 9 of 12 games but injured is knee in a blowout win against Denver and missed the next three weeks. Morris has proven to be a reliable starting running back for the Patriots but he has not looked that good since coming back from his knee injury. He has rushed for 401 yards this season.
- LaMont Jordan. Jordan appeared to be a solid prospect as a starting running back when he played in a backup role with the New York Jets but his career took a nosedive in Oakland. When the Patriots signed him this year as a free agent, many thought he and Sammy Morris would make a terrific rotation in relief of Maroney. But Jordan has only played in four games because of a quad injury.
- Kevin Faulk. Kevin Faulk is simply mister reliable for the Patriots. He has been the Patriots third down back for most of his career and has also been instrumental on special teams returning kicks. Faulk has never been an every week starting running back but when called upon he has always proven more than capable of fulfilling that role. Faulk has played well in his three starts this year and is the Patriots leading rusher with 445 yards. But having your third down back lead the team in rushing is not a good sign for the running game.
- Heath Evans. Evans is the Patriots fullback, so he is primarily a blocker and is not meant to contribute to the running game carrying the ball. He has filled that role very well this season.
- BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis is a free agent rookie from the University of Mississippi who started out the season on the practice squad and in a perfect world would have never seen the field in 2008. But given the aforementioned injuries, Green-Ellis is on the active roster and has started three games rushing for 275 yards. He has played quite well in his starts.
New England Patriots Running Backs: 2008 Season
It’s important to point out before talking about the rest of the 2008 season and beyond that the New England Patriots are not a smash mouth running football team. It has become a pass oriented offense that relies on the run to keep defenses honest and pick up first downs in tough short yardage situations. But every great passing team needs good, productive running backs to be successful. It is rare to have great success on any offense without a good running game. The Patriots did win a Super Bowl with the somewhat pedestrian Antowain Smith at running back in 2001, but he was very reliable and had over 1,000 yards rushing that year.
In 2008, the promise all these running backs presented at the beginning of the season have been dashed. Maroney is on injured reserve and hardly saw the field, while Morris and Jordan have missed significant playing time throughout the season. The Patriots have had four different starting tailbacks in its 12 games so far this year. Kevin Faulk and Green-Ellis have done an admirable job of filling in but it’s not an ideal situation to constantly shuffle the lineup and have no consistent rotation at running back.
So can the Patriots continue to get by with its current cluster of running backs?
Yes it can. Despite the injuries and shuffling of the lineup, the Patriots rank 9th overall in rushing this year, with 1,566 yards. For the most part the Patriots have run the ball reasonably well this year. The concern is the ability to get the tough 3rd and short and 4th and short runs necessary to keep drives alive. The Patriots were poor running the ball against the Steelers, but so is everybody else. While the Patriots don’t have a top flight running back on the roster, barring injury, Morris, Green-Ellis, and Faulk should be able to carry the load effectively the rest of the year.
Sammy Morris would appear to be the strongest back on the roster as a featured runner if his injury is fully healed. He was running the ball well and hard in replace of Maroney earlier in the season before suffering a knee injury against Denver. Green-Ellis has also performed surprisingly well for an undrafted rookie free agent, but he has seen little playing time the past three weeks, with Faulk getting the bulk of the carries. If Morris is fully healed, I expect the Patriots would prefer to rotate Morris and Green-Ellis, while keeping Faulk fresh and limit his duties to third down, which is his primary role on the team. But the past few weeks has seen Faulk on the field more than usual, although in those games the offense was clearly in passing mode which Faulk is more suited for.
New England Patriots Running Backs: 2009 and Beyond
The big concern for Patriots fans is the future. And the biggest question facing the Patriots is – can Laurence Maroney, once he’s healthy, be the team’s feature back. Here is what I wrote about Laurence Maroney in a blog after being placed on injured reserve:
The Patriots have placed Laurence Maroney on injured reserve today because of shoulder problems. Maroney was the Patriots’ first round draft pick in 2006 and has been somewhat of a disappointment. The last two years he has constantly been injured and when he is in the lineup he doesn’t see holes very well and runs tentatively. I suspect Maroney might get one more shot next year to see what he can do, but I don’t expect to see him the league too much longer. It’s unfortunate because he has the potential to be an excellent running back with his speed and moves in the open field.
Personally I am tired of Maroney and sorely disappointed. He dances around in the backfield without hitting the holes that are open and runs scared. He is all about avoiding contact. I think he is a complete and utter bust as a first round draft pick and I see nothing in his development that would lead me to believe he will ever be a decent running back in the NFL. He has the size, speed, and skill, he just doesn’t seem to have the heart or his shoulder injuries are such that he just can’t do it. Either way, I would like to see the Patriots look to free agency to get another running back. I really don’t see any promising backs coming out of the draft this year. The problem is, what free agent running backs will be available that could be a solid featured back? An aging Edgerrin James is the only one that comes immediately to mind, but he’s seen his better days.
I suspect that the Patriots will go into to 2009 and give Maroney one more shot at being the featured back, but make sure they have enough reliable backups on the roster just in case. Despite being in his 30’s, I suspect Morris very likely will be one of those backups, as well as Green-Ellis. Faulk should continue in his role as third down back. I don’t expect to see Jordan back because the Patriots can’t afford to have a stable of running backs who are injury prone.
For now the Patriots have done quite well in the running game despite their issues at running back. Next year I definitely expect to see some moves in this area, although probably nothing spectacular.