Patriots Ran Aground Quite A Bit Last Season

Bob George
February 22, 2000 at 3:22 pm ET

How bad is your team’s running game when you waive Terry Allen and bring on Raymont Harris?

If you really want to either wallow in depression or lose yourself in dreamland, pop in a tape of the 1985 NFL playoffs. Craig James ran for 104 yards against the Raiders in the Divisional round, and twice ripped off runs of 10 or more yards on third and long out of the shotgun. Seeing James score that touchdown behind a crunching block by John Hannah has to make you run for your hankies and think about the good old days.

And for those of you who have the means, resources or connections to own footage from 1976, you really have something to revel at. The triumvirate of Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun were part of the best running game the Patriots ever had. Running behind Hannah, Leon Gray and Dr. Bill Lenkaitis, the three men plowed their way through the toughest of NFL defenses (and this included Pittsburgh and Oakland, the two teams who played for the AFC Championship that year) and should have been plowing through Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters in Super Bowl XI.

When you think of Patriot running backs today, what is there to smile about?

The best of the bunch defected to Exit 16-W. The second best of the bunch may never play again thanks to a freak injury on Waikiki Beach. The third best of the bunch just got released the other day. It’s just as hard to hold onto them as it is to get them to gain more than three yards a pop with any consistency.

Bill Belichick wants to run the ball more in his new regime. Charlie Weis will have the major say here, of course. But the two men have already begun the renaissance of the Patriot running game. Right now, it seems like hollow talk, but at least things are beginning to happen.

This is one of those cases where cliche is in order, unfortunately. Be it an ancient Chinese proverb that says “The 1000-mile journey begins with but a single step” or the immortal “You have to start somewhere”, the Patriots are there. And the journey may prove to be more than a thousand miles, thanks to something known as a “salary cap”.

The salary cap cost the team Bruce Armstrong, perhaps for good. The salary cap forced the Patriots to jettison Allen for Harris, a running back with power but coming off an injury that forced him to miss all of 1999. The salary cap will also perhaps lead to the release of Lamont Warren, especially if Derrick Cullors returns from his injury that cost him the 1999 season.

And these are just halfbacks we’re talking here.

One good thing about the firing of Pete Carroll that doesn’t get the run that it should is that you might not see things like allowing the Sam Gashes of the world to just up and leave. Gash, a Pro Bowler with Buffalo, is the best blocking back in the business. The Patriots should still have Gash, but was let go when Carroll eased him out of the Patriot offense to cover up the fact that Gash wasn’t his cup of tea.

This is one player that the Patriots are eons away from replacing. They’ll replace Curtis Martin before they replace Gash. Tony Carter is a fair receiver and a weak blocker. Chris Floyd is still developing, but what he’s developing into no one is really sure about just yet.

For all the talk about running backs, all the chitchat seems to center around the deep back and not the up back. It really doesn’t matter, in that the Patriots are weak at both positions and really can’t fix both at the same time due to salary cap problems.

The plan, for right now, is to work on finding out what the offensive line can really do, and tailor blocking schemes that will work for them. What this will do is perhaps take the pressure off of whoever plays fullback, and give the halfback more holes to run through without having to rely too heavily on the fullback. A good scenario would be for Harris to push for 1,000-1,200 yards, assuming he stays healthy and plays at or near his prior levels with the Bears a few years back.

The real key to the Patriot running game lies in the tiny but powerful body of Kevin Faulk. Belichick hasn’t made much mention of the mighty mite from LSU, but he showed enough promise his rookie year that Belichick should give him a close look in 2000.

Faulk, despite his size, showed that he isn’t afraid to hit the hole, however few holes there were in 1999. Whereas Martin is famous for juking in the backfield, Faulk would go straight at a hole. Allen drew most of the workload while the rookie stood on the sidelines last year, but what time Faulk spent in there should earn him more carries in 2000.

The Patriots rushed for 1426 yards in 1999, an average of 89.1 yards per game. That was good for 22nd in the NFL, but the 89 yards per game with the kind of passing attack the Patriots have is just plain rancid. Drew Bledsoe would sure appreciate an upgrade in this area, anything to keep the defenses from teeing off on him.

Whether Harris and Faulk enjoy great seasons or not, at the very least the running game has to force the defense to respect it and not overplay the pass. Bledsoe was getting blitzed on most every down in the second half of last year, and part of the blame has to go to the lack of a potent running attack. Harris doesn’t have to be the next Barry Sanders; all he has to do is be just good enough to keep the linebackers and safeties at home most of the time.

The job Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia do with the offensive line is also critical in this area. One of the first things Belichick said upon his hiring was this plan he used in Cleveland to upgrade the quality of his offensive line. Though the pass blocking suffered greatly in 1999, a better run attack will also benefit the offensive line as well, as they might not have so many blitz packages to deal with.

Of course, if you listen to Robert Edwards, he’ll merely come back next year and all this worry over the running game is moot. Edwards thinks he is on the road to recovery and should be ready for 2001. He has been working out like an animal and is convinced that his NFL career is not over.

Robert if you’re reading this, you suffered nerve damage. Later in life you’re going to have a family and will want to run and jump with your children. While we all admire your courage and determination, risking the ability to walk over a football career isn’t worth it. As much as I’d like to see you in camp in 2001, try and find a new career.

What will 2001 be the year of? Most experts think Belichick will make a major free agent run that year, when cap money will be more plentiful. That’s fine, but there is still a 2000 season to play, and Bledsoe has to get through it.

Now that’s something. Beef up your running game just to save your franchise quarterback. Is that what Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, George Halas and Vince Lombardi used to say about their running games?

Here’s to more than just three yards and a helluva lot of dust raised in Foxborough this fall.



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