Thursday, September 23, 2010

Running in Place

AP Photo/Alan Diaz

The weak link gets weaker.

Coming into the season the New England Patriots running backs posed the biggest question on the team, at least for the offense.

A group plagued by injuries, turnovers and inconsistency made the position a revolving door of inadequate performance.

After Week 1, the Patriots finally gave up on Laurence Maroney. The former first-round pick showed flashes of good play, but for the most part he was either putting the ball on the ground or not even making the active roster.

He never ran for 1,000 yards in a season, never played all 16 games, and he fumbled quite a bit in the red zone.

So he was cast off to Denver in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Instead of giving the ownership justification for trading away Maroney, the rest of the group—Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor and BenJarvus Green-Ellis—ran for measly 52 yards on 20 carries. Faulk, was the leading rusher with 22 yards on five carries, yet was put on IR after the game because of a torn ACL.

The Faulk loss will be hard-felt. While the running game has not been a stable form of production for the Pats, Faulk has been a bright spot, if you will.

Faulk ran the ball efficiently. Over his career he has averaged 4.2 yards per carry and in his 12-year career—including the two games this season—he has only rushed for less than 3.5 yards per career for the season twice.

He also was a great receiver out of the backfield, blocked, and returned kicks and punts on occasion. He was a do-it-all back who earned Tom Brady’s trust, especially as a receiver.

He’s been a great teammate in the locker room, and he is a three-time Super Bowl champion.

So how do you replace him? How do you strengthen such a depleted group?

As it does when any team needs players, the rumor mill is circling. Willie Parker and Larry Johnson are available, and Brandon Jacobs has requested a trade away from the New York Giants. All have baggage and productivity concerns, but the Patriots did succeed with the cast-off Corey Dillon at running back.

Available names are nice, but the Patriots are currently focused on the people currently on the roster.

Brady pointed out Sammy Morris as someone who will get the opportunity to step up.

Morris has only seen the field for 16 offensive plays this season, but that could, and very well should, change.

Morris led the team in rushing yards and touchdowns in 2008 and can line-up at running back and fullback.

Why has he fallen so far down the depth chart?

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Because he can never stay healthy. In 2007, after six games in he suffered a chest injury and was placed on IR. In 2008, even though he was the team’s most productive rusher, he didn’t get the role until after Maroney went on the IR, and Morris only played in 13 games. Last season, he injured his knee in Week 6, didn’t return until Week 12, and didn’t start until the final two games of the season.

Another name that is causing a stir is newly signed Danny Woodhead.

Woodhead was signed before the Jets game, possibly as part of a continuing battle between the teams that sees players and coaches going from one team to the other much like Larry Izzo and Bill Parcells.

He is a fan favorite because of his underdog status; he is only 5’9” and played Division II college football. However, what makes him an intriguing replacement for Faulk is his similarity to the injured back.

Woodhead is very quick and has good hands—he actually originally made the Jets roster as a wide receiver. He’s also very tough and knows that he has to work that much harder to keep a job.

Still, the bulk of his play time has been on special teams. It’s not a devalued position, but the Patriots problems are larger than help on special teams.

Can Morris stay healthy?

Will Woodhead get a chance to play more running back and display a skill set similar to Faulk’s?

The Patriots need a more balanced offense. The running game is virtually absent. The Maroney trade and Faulk injury may have finally fully exposed the glaring hole at running back.

Someone needs to step up, but who will it be, if anybody?

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