By: Bob George/
February 05, 2003

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Next in a series of positional analysis of the 2002 New England Patriots. Today: Running backs.

Is Antowain Smith the running back equivalent of Keyshawn Johnson?

The quarterback analysis nearly rendered this position totally redundant. It seemed like most of what was wrong with Tom Brady in 2002 had its roots in the running back area. People were perplexed at why Brady simply didn't duplicate his magical 2001 season, but fewer understood that the real reason lie in the usage, or lack thereof, of Smith.

Smith began 2002 much like he began 2001 -- in Bill Belichick's doghouse. In both of his years as a Patriot, he reported to training camp out of shape and unable to pass the conditioning test on the first try. Much was made of right tackle Greg Randall's non-passage of that test, as it helped cost him his starting job. Smith didn't lose his, but his reporting out of shape may have led to his reduced role in 2002.

It is said that Belichick was really miffed at Smith for reporting to camp out of shape, largely because he had been given a brand new four-year contract during the summer. Given Smith's age (he turns 31 in March), his getting that length of a contract is remarkable. Belichick reasoned that Smith would report to camp in animal shape thanks to the impetus provided from that new deal. When Smith went and failed his first conditioning test for the second straight year, Belichick likely felt let down.

Since Smith had no one like Kenyatta Jones behind him (like Randall did), Smith had to start. J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk were simply not cut out to be every-down backs like Smith, though Redmond had earned a reputation for being an outstanding (and clutch) pass receiver and a decent blitz blocker and Faulk was earning points on his versatility as a kick returner. Smith was the only guy who could handle 250-plus carries a year.

But right from the start, Belichick and Charlie Weis seemed hell-bent on establishing Brady as a passing phenom, and decided to try and feature him as the primo guy in the Patriot offense. With three new tight ends and two new wideouts added to the mix, Brady was made to try and carry the offensive load literally all by himself. This was made obvious in the season opener against Pittsburgh, where the Patriots ran 25 straight passing plays in one stretch.

In that game against the Steelers, Smith carried the ball only 17 times for 60 yards and a 3.5 yards/carry average. Smith would carry the ball 20 or more times only twice; at Buffalo (where he got his only 100-yard performance of the season) and at Detroit. Both games were Patriot wins, the Bills game being the largest margin of victory during the season.

Most of the season, Smith floundered around the 50-80 yard mark. Smith hit in that range in nine of the sixteen games. He finished the season just 18 yards shy of a second straight 1,000-yard season. But it was a far cry from the 1,157 yards he rushed for in the previous season.

Redmond may have seen his last days with the team, and despite his total inability to achieve sustained success as an NFL rusher, his presence would be sorely missed. His ability to pick up blitzers is a talent that is vastly underrated in this league. His clutch catches in the 2001 postseason, which includes three catches on the Super Bowl-winning drive, should have been parlayed into a super receiving season. Coming out of the backfield in the flat or on screens, Redmond can then find holes and run through them, something he cannot do as a power runner running into a jammed line of scrimmage.

But all anyone will look at when they think of Redmond is his raw 2002 stats, which show two yards rushing and five yards receiving. He only played in nine games this season, and gradually fell out of the offensive mix. Part of the reason is that Faulk played him out of a job, and became the third down back everyone thought he'd be when he was drafted four years ago.

Faulk averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2002, and may have won him some extended job security in the final game of the season against Miami. In that game he carried eight times for 53 yards and a 6.6 yards/carry average. Most important was the fact that Faulk was gaining tough yards against the Dolphins, and he appeared to be sort of a "go-to" guy for the Patriots as they poised themselves for the late rally to win the game.

Lost in the shuffle was Faulk's pass catching. He had the sort of year that most people thought Redmond would have. He caught 37 passes for a 10.3 yards/catch average. Like his rushing, his season highpoint came in the final game of the season. Against the Dolphins, he had nine catches for 73 yards. The biggest knock on Faulk remains his size (5'-8"), but he showed late in the season a potential to assume some of the offensive slack for the Patriots in 2003.

The Patriots appear to be in decent shape at fullback with Marc Edwards and Patrick Pass. Edwards was a fairly good short yardage back, so long as his running was limited to runs up the gut unless the defense bit badly on good fakes by the offense. Pass also did some work in kickoff return duty, but was limited in 2002 to mostly backup fullback duty.

What direction the Patriots take in running back may hinge to some degree on the fortunes of Antoine Womack. Womack was a second day draft pick reach who spent all of 2002 on injured reserve, though the Patriots knew this would happen when they selected the former Virginia running back. Womack, who enjoyed a decent career in Charlottesville, is sort of lopped into the "project" column, thanks largely in part to his injury and his ability to bounce back from it.

If Womack is healthy and ready to compete in 2003, look for him to compete directly with Smith for the starting job. Belichick may give the second-year player a good, long look at Smithfield this summer. If Womack sticks with the club, Redmond will likely be shown the door.

Redmond may also be on his way out if the Patriots select a running back high in the draft. With two first round picks at their avail, the Patriots figure to go defense with both picks. But some experts have suggested that the Patriots be brave and "waste" a pick on Miami's Willis McGahee, who was seriously injured in the Fiesta Bowl and was slated to miss the entire 2003 season. If McGahee can be talked into making himself eligible for this year's draft, some club might want to take a gamble on this guy. McGahee, who sustained a knee injury not too unlike Robert Edwards, represents a large gamble at this point. But if he somehow slips to a day two slot, the Patriots might want to roll the dice here.

Whoever assumes the starting job for the Patriots in '03 needs to have a monster year if the Patriots are to return to their former lofty status. Weis needs to remember that a balanced offense is a winning offense, and if Smith is the main guy, Belichick needs to let bygones be bygones and give this man the damned ball.

Of course, Smith can do right by himself by passing that stupid test on the first time this year.

Next installment: Receivers.