December 18, 2014

The Running Back Issue

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.*

PRESEASON 2010

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.

PRESEASON 2009

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.

PRESEASON 2008

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]

Comments

  1. Sorry Chris but I don’t buy your theory at all. Still, as we don’t know and we know we don’t know, it’s possible. It seems that withe Ellis Hobbs gone Maroney has been a favorite scapegoat. While I recognize he hasn’t lived up to his draft status I would love to see him finally reach his potential with the others contributing in their own unique ways. I’d like to see Law Firm get a chance in a real game – there are times he runs like an angry bull and we haven’t seen that since the days of Dillon.

    • oldskool138 says:

      Benjarvus is basically Antowain Smith. North-South will get you about 3 yards or so. I don’t see why this guy is such a fan favorite other than his odd name…

      • I think the reason is, when Brady went down in 2008, and so did Maroney, BJGE stood up, picked up the slack and performed. It was very “patriot” like. I think I’d echo the sentiment of Patriot fans when I say we’d like to see the guy get a fair shake – I’m not sure he’s good enough, but the only way to find out is to let him run.

        • oldskool138 says:

          The guy has 389 career yards. His career YPC is a very pedestrian 3.8. His lone career highlight was that 100-yard game against the powerhouse that was the Buffalo Bills circa 2008.

          Like I said, the guy’s a nice story but he’s nothing special…good depth guy, I suppose.

          • Right – I did say “I’m not sure he’s good enough”. My comments referred to his effort and readiness to step in when needed. The team preaches “one man down/one man up”, always be ready for your number to be called, play for the team. 2008 was a challenging year, and a number of bit players stepped up that year – BJGE was one of them.

            You’re right, nothing spectacular, but enough to give us a season, and a shot at the playoffs (which, somehow, 11-5 didn’t give us!).

            What can I say, I’m rooting for the guy.

          • classless says:

            oldskool,

            At least Green-Ellis gets 3 yards. Nancy Maroney just falls down at the line.

      • Sometimes all you need is three yards but more than that I like the fact he seems to run angry/aggressive. If his name were Smith I’d still like his style, his name is just a bonus. That first game I think I only saw one play when he went down on first contact (and that when the tackler had great form). I’d like to see him shine and not force the Patriots to go outside for someone.

    • Chris Warner says:

      Lance, the theory might be a stretch, but whenever Bill Belichick changes his methods, I try to figure out the reason, and I think protecting his first-rounder from scrutiny might be one. As far as BJGE, I stand by my statement that the Pats should hang on to him as a backup, esp. given the NE RB’s fragility.

  2. I can’t see any trades coming in the RB position. I don’t think any of them can be trusted to make it through a season – and history seems to back that up. Just MHO

  3. Green reminds me of Justin Vargas who was a running back, and they’re best, for Oakland. (now with Denver). The problem was he wasn’t drafted that high and he had 2 high round draft picks in front of him who both stunk. Vargas was better than they were so the front office (Davis) had to get rid of him so as not to look like jerks. As for Maroney– I thought I saw a little ray of light in the NO game as he actually spotted a hole. Not the one called for but, there, nonetheless and veered off to the right for a nice score. I think that may be his problem–vision–spotting holes between the tackles and maybe just outside the ends instead of just plowing right into the line or bouncing it outside.

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