By: Bob George/BosSports.net
February 10, 2004

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2003 New England Patriots. Today: running backs.

The Patriots cannot run the football.

Antowain Smith rushed for 121 yards against the Jets on December 20. This began a run of four games in a row where the big guy averaged at least 4.3 yards per carry in each game. He ran for exactly 100 yards against the Colts in the AFC Championship Game, including a season-long 35-yard scamper in the third quarter. In the Super Bowl, his average was 3.2 yards per carry, but he did total 83 yards and one touchdown.

Prior to the December Jet game, Smith had only 447 yards rushing in 2003.

The Patriots cannot run the football.

Kevin Faulk was supposed to emerge in 2003 as the featured back for the Patriots. He finished the year with 638 rushing yards, four fewer than Smith. But he was second on the team in pass receptions and fourth in pass receiving yardage. He scored zero touchdowns in 2003. In a world with no restrictions, Faulk is still nothing more than a third down back.

The Patriots cannot run the football.

Smith had only three rushing touchdowns himself in 2003. That didn't even lead the team. Mike Cloud had five rushing touchdowns. Four of them came against both of the AFC South playoff teams. He had a terrific game in his Patriot debut against Tennessee, and zilch since. He was only active for five games all year long. After his 73 rushing yards against the Titans, his yardage either stayed the same or decreased in every successive game.

The Patriots cannot run the football.

Well, actually they can, but where the Patriots are involved, "running the football" means a quick screen to Troy Brown. The bottom line is that the overall impotency of the Patriot running game makes Tom Brady even more remarkable. It is a hundred times that given that the Patriots managed to win another Super Bowl championship.

Some CBS analysts think that the Patriots have a "functional running game". It is a left-handed way of saying that the Patriots can't run the ball, but make just enough hay to get them by. By "functional", it means that Smith can gain two yards on third and one, but don't use it to set up the passing game or to knock a defense around to kill the clock late in the contest.

Face it, this is the one area of the Patriots which is top to bottom on the weak side, and in need of lots of help. A case could be made that if the right people in this area were brought in for 2004, if the rest of the team maintains status quo all the while, the Patriots could be nearly unbeatable. Give the Patriots a solid, bruising, 1,300-1,500 yard back, and Brady will probably never sink below a 100 passer rating in any game.

Predictably, Smith was let go on Monday, the Patriots refusing to pick up a half-million dollar option which would have triggered a $3.9 million salary for 2004. Smith turns 32 on March 14th. His rushing stats for the Patriots dropped off sharply after his hallmark 2001 season, when he rushed for 1,157 yards and a 4.0 average per carry. Paying someone nearly four million dollars who is coming off of a 642-yard, 3.5 average year at age 32 is not good business, and the Patriots darn well know that.

Smith is no longer the marquee back for the Patriots. Though he could be resigned later on for backup money and could perhaps come back in that capacity, the smart thinking is that Smith will start somewhere else. His three years in New England ended gracefully, with no animosity on either side. Bill Belichick called him personally to wish him well and thank him for what he did for the Patriots. But it was time for him to go, and it was the absolute right decision to release him.

As for Faulk, his downfall here in New England will involve how much money he wants and whether he will settle for cheap money to stay put with a team he'd basically like to remain with. He will not make starter money here in New England, plain and simple. He is a situational back, not an every-down back. He does have some value as a receiver, but for what the Patriots really need at running back, Faulk cannot give it to them. There exists the chance that he has played his last game as a Patriot along with Smith.

Cloud doesn't seem to be the long-term answer, and he could go as well. He had the one great game against Tennessee, but so did Dan Klecko in the exhibition opener against the Giants. There isn't much to say other than if Cloud was going to be a keeper, we'd all know it by now. Or, better yet, we'd've known it in October.

With free agent pickings rather slim (Philadelphia's Duce Staley, San Francisco's Kevan Barlow and Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson heading a mediocre cast), the Patriots might be looking at the draft to help. With the 21st and the 32nd picks in the first round, the Patriots might have the answer to all their running back problems.

Belichick could trade up and try for Oregon State's Steven Jackson or Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones. Or, he could just stand pat and wait for his given picks to happen. Some mock drafts have Michigan's Chris Perry falling to the Patriots at 32. A back with his size and power would look good in a Patriot uniform. With four picks in the first two rounds, look for one of them to go to a running back. If Perry (or someone of his equal) seems destined to fall to 32, look for Belichick to address the offensive line with the 21st pick.

The bottom line is that the Patriots have a golden opportunity to address their biggest need area, and don't have to worry about a rebuilding process while doing so. The Patriots have had a number of busts and injured players (Sedrick Shaw, Robert Edwards, Terry Allen, Raymont Harris, to name a few) who tried to step up and replace Curtis Martin. Granted, the Patriots were okay in the long term without Martin, but if they can somehow finally bring back the stud running back they have been missing since Martin, this team will be impossible to deal with in the next several years.

This is not to condemn Smith, but calling him a "stud running back" rings a wee bit hollow. Smith has had two 1,000-yard seasons in his career. Martin has been in the league for nine seasons and has gained 1,000 or more yards in every one of them, the first three with the Patriots and his rookie year being the second highest of his career. Until the Patriots do get that kind of rusher back in the fold in Foxborough, the comparisons to Martin won't stop.

Bob Kraft wants to pattern his team after the San Francisco 49ers in their heyday. Hmmm. Anyone resembling Roger Craig out there? Now that would be something, someone with 1,000-yard potential at both rushing and receiving. Joe Montana was great, but he also had a great cast (which included some guy named Rice).

If Perry is the back of the future, terrific. Draft him and let he and Brady talk about all their old times at the Big House. But the Patriots need to bring the stud back in, and with great emphasis on stud. If they can do that, get used to the thought of lots more rallies in Scollay Square every February or so.

Next installment: receivers.


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