By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 11, 2007

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2006 New England Patriots. Today: running back.

In what has been one of the weirdest two weeks in Patriot history, you probably cannot discount the possibility that Corey Dillon will come back.

Dillon abruptly gave the Patriots his version of the two week notice, and the team complied by releasing him just after free agency began. At press time, he still is a man without a team, and it may stay that way for a while if his current opinion of his self-worth doesn't change soon. Dillon still fashions himself as an elite back who commands top dollar and the sharing of the spotlight and workload with no one. But as yet, no one has stepped up and offered him the job or the bucks to put the smile back on his face.

When Dillon came on board prior to the 2004 season, the acquisition was looked on with scorn. Here comes a player who goes against the ideal Patriot: a guy with a rap sheet and a history of making with the attitude. His final appearance in Paul Brown Stadium as a Bengal was him throwing his gear into the stands and declaring that he would never play for Cincinnati ever again. Patriot fans were left to wonder what Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli were thinking, bringing this kind of potential clubhouse cancer to Foxborough.

But Belichick and Pioli had done their homework, and were proven correct in the long run. For his three seasons in Foxborough, Dillon gave the Patriots everything they asked of him, if not more. His first season turned into the best ever authored by a Patriot running back in history, as he plowed his way to 1,635 yards rushing and his first (and only) Super Bowl title. In 2004 Dillon shut up most all of his detractors, and Patriot fans will fondly remember him forever for this one campaign.

But he didn't shut up all his detractors. Reporters kept hounding him about his days in Cincinnati. He was bugged constantly about his age and injuries in 2005 and 2006. And when the Patriots drafted Minnesota back Laurence Maroney in 2006, Dillon had to endure questions about him being pushed aside in favor of the supposed running back of the future.

Not surprisingly, Dillon (whose rushing yards dropped to 733 in 2005 and went up to 812 in 2006) lasted only one season with Maroney before demanding to move on. Despite the belief that sharing time with Maroney might extend Dillon's career and increase his durability and productivity at his age (he will turn 33 in October), Dillon wanted to part ways and try to make it somewhere else as "the" back. The tandem of Dillon and Maroney might have clicked and lifted the Patriots past the Colts and into Super Bowl XLI if Maroney had played a bit better in 2006, but in the end this is perhaps what Dillon would have wanted, ring or no ring.

Assuming this is really it for Dillon as a Patriot, he should leave Foxborough with anything but scorn for the Patriot organization. What happens behind locker room doors is the players' business, but Dillon's public reputation was given the needed salve for his three seasons as a Patriot. He came in as a Cincinnati pariah, and he leaves as a champion who was exposed as a hard working back who simply wasn't getting the one thing in the Queen City most every professional athlete craves: the joy of winning.

Now the burden in the Patriot backfield falls to one man. Is Maroney ready for all the workload he should seemingly now get?

Not so fast. The Patriots signed Sammy Morris for some relief earlier this week. Morris, who turns 30 later this month, has logged seven seasons with Buffalo and Miami in primarily a change of pace role. His two best seasons were in Miami, having logged 523 yards in 2004 and 400 yards in 2006. Morris figures to be a spell for Maroney, while veteran Kevin Faulk will stay on as the third down back.

Maroney needs to be two things in 2007 that he wasn't in 2006: more durable and less of a shifty back. For all the hype surrounding Maroney in 2006, he was largely a disappointment. He gained 745 yards on 175 carries, topping the 100-yard mark only once, at Cincinnati. He missed two games late in the season due to injury. His longest carry of the season was for 41 yards, also in the Cincinnati game.

One thing Maroney really needs to work on is what he does once Tom Brady hands him the ball. Too often Maroney did too much shifting behind the line of scrimmage instead of simply hitting the line and trusting his power. While not as big as Dillon, Maroney is the far quicker of the two and might have broken off many more big runs if he had merely tried to hit the hole rather than juking behind the line of scrimmage. Some more position coaching might be in order here to help this issue.

Faulk, who himself is getting a little long in the tooth (31 in June), still looms as the third down back, the top receiving back, and a help on special teams. Every year Faulk remains as a Patriot sustains him as the one remaining jewel from the ignominious reign of Bobby Grier as general manager (unless Tebucky Jones comes back from his injury). One can only wonder if the Pete Carroll era might have been more prosperous if more of the draft picks (including the six they got from the Jets for Bill Parcells and Curtis Martin) had turned out like Faulk.

The Patrick Pass era in Foxborough may also be over. Pass, now an unrestricted free agent, likely won't be brought back. Pass was a backup back who also excelled on special teams, the latter of which proved to be his biggest asset in the long run. Pass, who followed Terrell Davis at Georgia, played in only three games for the Patriots in 2006. His best season was in 2005 when he gained 245 yards for the season. But Pass, who turns 30 on New Year's Eve, may be too old to be kept on for the reasons he has been anymore.

In the end, it's Maroney's backfield now. He will need to step up and become the back everyone thinks he should be.

Meanwhile, if you see Dillon on the street somewhere, walk up to him and say one word. Thanks.

Statistics in this report courtesy of NFL.com. All other material in this report is the opinion of the author, with no material borrowed or copied from other sources.

Next installment: receivers.


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