New England coach Bill Belichick was huffing and puffing away on a treadmill, working hard on his running game at age 60 while recalling a story from his days as an assistant with the New York Giants.
"I was on … like mile 20 … of the New Jersey … marathon," Belichick said. "This Giants fan … comes up to me … and says … 'Are you guys … going to fix … the running game?' … I'm like … just trying to finish."
Belichick also talked X's and O's in his recent workout, which included a 20-minute session on a stair climber. One of his main concerns for the Patriots was rehabbing the team's running game. When asked if the Patriots were capable of running the ball last year when they had to run (and presumably when the other team knew the same thing), Belichick said, "No."
He quickly added that, "You could say the same thing about our passing game."
Sarcasm aside, the truth is simple: For as close to greatness as the Patriots have come the past five years, losing twice to the Giants in the Super Bowl on drives in the final minutes, there has been one obvious flaw. The running game that helped the Patriots win three titles early in Belichick's grand run has pretty much disappeared.
Much of that is a testimony to the greatness of Belichick, the first coach since Don Shula to lead teams with drastically different approaches on offense to Super Bowls, and quarterback Tom Brady. But if the Patriots want to win another title, better efficiency and play from the running game is vital. The Patriots can't just put up decent rushing stats. They have to run it when everybody knows they have to run it.
Enter Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, the pair of running backs the Patriots drafted in 2011. The lack of an offseason didn't give either enough time to learn the passing plays, particularly the protection schemes. With that problem solved, Ridley is now the starter with Vereen in position to step in if needed. That's assuming the Patriots are going to run.
"That's all inside the mind of Bill Belichick," Ridley said. "There are a lot of things we do here and it's just my job to know what all of it is and be effective when they call it."
Belichick didn't spend a third-round pick on Ridley or a second-round pick on Vereen to make them window dressing. He also didn't allow BenJarvus Green-Ellis to go in free agency this offseason for the sake of being nice. Over the past five years, that part of the offense has been a mirage. Ever since the Patriots traded for Wes Welker and Randy Moss and went guns blazing, the offense has played like an NBA team that shoots from the outside first to set up the inside game. It can work, but not consistently.
"Most of us wish we had their problems, but that doesn't mean there aren't problems with what they do," an NFC defensive coordinator said. "What the Patriots do works perfectly in the regular season and most of the time in the playoffs because they're just better than everybody else.
"But when you get into the fourth quarter in a tight game, it's pretty easy to defend them. You can take away the running game pretty easily and then get physical with them. You see the way the Giants have played them the past two times [in the Super Bowl]. Tight game, suffocate their offense and give yourself a chance. You still have to make great plays to win, but it's easier because the running game doesn't scare you … they can't impose their will."
The numbers don't necessarily bear that out in the stats. From 2001 to 2004, when the Patriots won three Super Bowls, they vacillated somewhere between Nos. 7 and 28. Over the past five years, the ranking gap has narrowed to between Nos. 6 and 20. In other words, the running game of late has seemingly been more consistent. But this is where stats lie.
The quality of the Patriots' running game has been average, at best. To believe in the New England ground game is to believe in urban legend. As in the legend of Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. Green-Ellis went by the nickname "Law Firm" and the 5-foot-8 Woodhead is a modern-day Rudy. Truth is, neither was beyond serviceable.
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"You didn't have to prepare for those guys," an NFC head coach said. "Green-Ellis and Woodhead weren't going to hurt you. They got the yards they were supposed to get because of the scheme of the offense. They weren't going to make mistakes, but they weren't explosive."
Neither was a runner in the mold of Antowain Smith or Corey Dillon, the backs the Patriots had during their run of Super Bowl wins. Smith and Dillon were the kind of power backs who could both get tough yards in the fourth quarter and make opponents pay for not respecting the running game.
The most important running stat, total carries, bears that out. Over the past five years, the Patriots have rushed more than 466 times in a season only once. That was in 2008, when Brady went down in the season opener with a knee injury and the Patriots had to play unproven Matt Cassel all year.
During the three Super Bowl-winning seasons, New England never ran the ball fewer than 473 times and topped out at 524 carries in 2004. Or as the NFC head coach said: "This isn't a pure balance league anymore. Nobody is really running it 50 percent of the time. But it can't get completely out of whack, either … I think the Patriots, as great as they are, have gone a little too far. I want to see if they can fix that."
That's what the guy at the marathon wondered a long time ago.
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