By: Bob George/
August 26, 2002

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How important was Jamal Anderson to the Atlanta Falcons?

Flashback to 1998. The Falcons set an NFL record that year in what would become the hallmark year for the 30-year-old franchise. They won 14 games that year, but that still wasn't enough to get home field throughout the playoffs. They set a record with the most wins by a playoff road team as they lugged those 14 wins into Minnesota for the 1998 NFC Championship Game. The Vikings hosted the Falcons because they managed to win 15 games that year. Do the math.

But it was the Falcons who prevailed, winning 30-27 in overtime and sending a Metrodome crowd home totally stunned. The Falcons headed to their only Super Bowl in franchise history, but lost the 33rd annual classic to Denver, 34-19. John Elway ended his career in a blaze of glory, while the Falcons could never overcome the revelations of safety Eugene Robinson and his tryst with a prostitute the night before.

The 2001 Patriots provided the league with the greatest display of team football since the halcyon days of Vince Lombardi. Conversely, the Falcons of 1998 showed that they depended greatly, actually too greatly, on the talents of one man. And this claim is easy to prove, given what happened to the fortunes of the Falcons after he suffered his debilitating injuries in the ensuing years.

Anderson literally was the Falcons in '98. Sure, they had Chris Chandler and Tony Martin, Jamir Miller and Cornelius Bennett. But Anderson authored one of the greatest seasons in NFL history that year by a running back. Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. He was the heart and soul of the team, and literally carried his team all the way to Miami and the Big Show.

Jamal Anderson is now a Patriot.

Following the '98 season, Anderson's career took a downturn, and the fortunes of the Falcons went right down with him. Thanks to severe knee injuries, he played in only 5 games in 1999 and 2001 combined. He did rush for 1,024 yards in 2000, but he only averaged 3.6 yards per carry and his Falcons finished 4-12 that season.

Since Anderson's first grisly knee injury, sustained during a 24-7 Monday night loss against Dallas, his lustre was permanently tarnished. He has never been able to regain the form in which he almost single-handedly led Atlanta to the top of the conference, showing a dominating form not seen since perhaps the likes of Franco Harris, and seen today in the form of Marshall Faulk.

Jamal Anderson is now a Patriot.

If Anderson is able to return to his 1998 form, or perhaps even somewhat close to it, today's imminent signing (you can take "agreement in principle" however you want) represents one of the biggest coups in franchise history. At the very least, the Patriots have solid depth at running back on the cheap. At best, Antowain Smith may become this year's Drew Bledsoe and the rest of the AFC will begin to quiver at the frightening prospect of having to deal with both Tom Brady and Anderson in the same backfield.

The signing of Anderson, assuming it goes through without any further hitches, is still another example of Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli finding diamond rings and pearl necklaces hidden in a typical scrap heap. It is a low risk proposition with a chance for a great return. And if Anderson is able to return to his best days, the payoff could be at the very least a return trip to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots are already set at running back, seemingly. But this is a case where George Steinbrenner is set in his Yankee pitching rotation, and brings in David Wells anyway. Or, he has a terrific prospect at first base named Nick Johnson, and goes out and signs Jason Giambi. This is much the same thing for the Patriots. They can't lose with this deal, and can win big if Anderson re-learns how to go nuts with the football.

Some folks might tell you that Anderson fills a need, and is not simply a couple of U.S. Grants in a wallet full of Ben Franklins. Neither J.R. Redmond nor Kevin Faulk are the answer as an every down back. Redmond can catch and run, and Faulk can return kickoffs and break off an open field end run now and then. But for the dirty stuff, that's what Smith is for.

Except that for the second August in a row, Smith showed up out of shape and failed the first conditioning test. Now, the Patriots have Anderson. Hmmm. Smith might want to ask Greg Robinson-Randall if he expects to win his starting right tackle job back any time soon.

Anderson may be for depth and only depth, perhaps. But you cannot rule out the possibility that Belichick snatched up Anderson with the intent of taking some boss playing time away from Smith down the road. Given Robinson-Randall's plight, and given the fact that Belichick was irked after Smith failed the first conditioning test again after signing a big four-year contract in the offseason, Belichick may be sending a message to Smith, and chances are that message doesn't include the word "Attaboy!".

There is no question that Belichick is in firm control of this team. There is also no question that Belichick and Pioli have emerged as the top personnel tandem in the league right now. Take away the learning curve 2000 season where the defense was spinning its wheels while trying to figure out Belichick's complicated defensive system (which eventually had to be dumbed down), and literally everything Belichick has touched has turned to gold. If Anderson turns to gold, the rest of the league can begin to sweat starting right now.

Anderson in his old incarnation would give them a back in which Curtis Martin can only dream of being. His 1998 rushing yardage was the tenth-highest of all time, right up there with such rushers as Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and Terrell Davis. Anderson is 29, and like Smith, doesn't have the huge number of career rushes which might suggest that his body may be ready to wear down. It is feasible that Anderson could regain his old form again at this age. Admittedly, it is a big "if".

The Patriots are gambling that Anderson has one, and maybe two such seasons in him. Smith, meanwhile, is property of the Patriots for at least the next four years. While Smith may not be too pleased eventually with the loss in stature and playing time, Patriot Nation won't mind one bit. Either one of the two backs is bound to kick it this year and next. With Smith in high gear, the Patriots won a Super Bowl. With Anderson back at his best, gosh, golly, gee whilllikers.

Speculation about what Anderson can really bring to the Patriot table is better left until he actually signs on the dotted line, and exactly what the coaches see that he can do once he signs. For all we know, Anderson may be another Chuck Foreman or Mark van Eeghen, great backs with other teams who had nothing left when they came to New England.

But the thought in the back of your mind that Anderson could be what he once was is enough to drive Joe Patriot Fan crazy. Get him out there, says Joe, I wanna see for myself.

Or, you can go ask your Atlanta Falcon fan buddy, if you have one. Ask him what he thinks of one Jamal Anderson. Make sure you mention the year 1998 several times when you ask him. Chances are you will really like his answer.