by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff
Some call it running back by committee, or RRBC. Some see it as proof that no one really sticks out. With a recent Sports Illustrated cover story on the fast decline of feature backs (not exactly news – remember Marion Butts’ time in Foxboro?) it seems that the Patriots have found a temporary solution to an ongoing problem.
Though effective this preseason, the RBBC approach has done little to allay concerns about New England’s backfield for the long haul. For clues as to what Coach Bill Belichick is thinking (or maybe more confusion), let’s review previous preseason games to see how the carries were divvied up.
Kevin Faulk’s rushing numbers are not included here (the man has a better-defined role than Sylvester Stallone). Also excluded are fourth preseason games due to projected starters resting. The running back with the first carry of each scrimmage is noted thusly.*
Bill Belichick seems to be making a concerted effort this year to highlight the performances of certain backs in each game. If this trend continues, expect Laurence Maroney to get the nod vs. the Rams this week.
Saints (box score): Chris Taylor 8-39; *BenJarvus Green-Ellis 11-34; Maroney 8-30; Thomas Clayton 4-13.
Despite averaging just over three yards per carry, Green-Ellis helped the Pats establish their running game vs. the Super Bowl champs.
Falcons (box score): *Fred Taylor 11-54; Sammy Morris 6-52; Green-Ellis 7-12; Clayton 4-(-5).
Taylor started and showed flashes of THE Fred Taylor. Morris continued that trend, albeit against a team with about as much tackle in it as an empty fishing boat. (On a side note, speaking as the self-appointed driver of the Thomas Clayton Preseason Bandwagon, my boy TC got screwed.) Look for the rushing emphasis to continue Thursday against yet another faster, lighter NFC defense.
You know, when this article began, I assumed that Maroney had started all of last year’s preseason games. Some research proved me wrong. (I know, I know: hard to believe.)
Eagles (box score): Morris 12-45; Green-Ellis 4-31; *Maroney 6-14.
Last year the Pats’ starters could not run against the Eagles’ D, making Maroney’s preseason debut a rough one. Green-Ellis’ stats made matters worse for LoMo.
Bengals (box score): Green-Ellis 10-44; *Fred Taylor 7-26; Maroney 3-6.
Taylor’s consistency and Green-Ellis’ 4.4-yard average only added fuel to the Maroney-hating fire, though no one on New England’s offense could have been proud of a 7-6 loss to Chad Ochocinco’s extra-point kick.
Redskins (box score): Green-Ellis 6-49; Chris Taylor 4-25; *Fred Taylor 7-20; Maroney 7-16.
Though Fred Taylor started against the Redskins, he had only one carry in the first offensive series (gaining one yard) before Maroney took over on the ensuing possession. In that series, Maroney caught one pass for nine yards and carried twice for two yards, recovering his own fumble on the second carry. Disappointing, but only in the way the maiden voyage of the Titanic was disappointing.
To recap the 2009 scrimmages, Maroney had 16 rushes for 36 yards (2.25 ypc). In his defense (and as an indictment of last year’s running game), Taylor had 14 runs for 46 yards for about 3.3 ypc.
Two years ago, New England took a more traditional approach to playing time, starting and sticking with Maroney in the first three games. Below each stat line is the optimistic point of view at the time.
Ravens (box score): Lamont Jordan 19-76; Green-Ellis 1-8; *Maroney 6-6.
One yard per carry for Maroney. Even I can do that math. But that’s alright: it’s the first friendly, and the Ravens always have a stout defense.
Bucs (box score): *Maroney 7-15; Morris 5-10; Green-Ellis 2-8.
An absolute clusterhump of a game (Pats lose, 27-10). But really, it’s okay, the Bucs are going to be a solid defensive team for a long time. Right?
Eagles (box score): Morris 5-24; *Maroney 5-18; Green-Ellis 5-6.
It’s okay. It’s a passing offense. Tom Brady will get them to the playoffs, unless he gets hurt in the first quarter of the first gameohdamnitalltohell.
THE (POSSIBLY CRAZY) THEORY
In the wake of the 2007 offense, the Patriots looked to rely on Brady’s arm again. This failure to emphasize the running game came to a head last season, when New England couldn’t get yardage it needed to run out the clock or to score in the red zone. Coupled with a deteriorating defense, 2009 ended quickly and badly.
Sure, this month Belichick wants to get a different look at different backs, and wants to give each starter several carries to establish a rhythm. But there’s another theory, one that hinges on Maroney’s status with the team. In August 2008, Maroney carried the ball 18 times for 39 yards, or 2.17 ypc. In 2009, he tallied an almost equally abysmal 2.25-yard average. Based on these numbers – and on public reaction – Belichick decided to protect Maroney from preseason failure.
That’s not the primary reason for RRBC, of course; the coaches really do want to see how each player performs against a starting defense. And few coaches care less about what the public thinks than Belichick. But let’s consider: which Patriots running back is most self-aware of his image? Which one has seemed most willing to comment on the “haters” and how he is perceived?
Correct or no, fair or no, Maroney’s preseason performances have made him the target of trade speculation (and, for many fans, trade hopes). Having him score a TD on his first carry against New Orleans obviously got the guy excited. A strong performance vs. the Rams on Thursday (number 29 in total defense last year) can only boost the former first-rounder’s confidence going into the season.
We can speculate all we want about who’s going to start this year, but we all know that – barring a trade – Maroney will figure prominently in this offense’s plans. RRBC? Great. Maroney looking to contribute without feeling the pressure? Even better.
Email Chris Warner at [email protected]