Running Game Returns, As Does Winning

Bob George
February 13, 2002 at 8:46 pm ET

Next in a series of articles on the 2001 positional analysis of the New England Patriots. Today’s feature: Running backs

Was it really Tom Brady?

Or was it Antowain Smith?

Brady sports a gaudy 14-3 record as Patriot starting quarterback, all of it with Smith in his backfield. Conversely, Drew Bledsoe is 0-2 with Smith. As the quarterback debate rages on, one can only wonder how Bledsoe would have fared in the post-Robert Edwards era with Smith as his lead back instead of Terry Allen or J.R. Redmond.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, Smith is now an unrestricted free agent, and the team needs to make a decision on this man. Do they keep the 30-year old Smith, or once again look to the draft for a younger and quicker back with more long-term career upside? A lot will depend upon how much Smith asks for.

The Patriot running back corps, as currently constructed, is perhaps the best such group since the 1976 trio of Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun. The ‘76ers gained more yardage, but Smith, Redmond, Kevin Faulk, Patrick Pass and Marc Edwards got lots done and greatly helped in the development of Brady by forcing defenses to respect the running game more.

Some folks might point to the development of the offensive line, and its sudden improvement in run blocking. As true as this may be, as rookie left tackle Matt Light and right guard Joe Andruzzi both exceeded expectations in 2001, Smith and Redmond found distinct roles this year, and both men had their own imprints on this successful championship campaign.

There is no question that Smith was a major cog in the Patriot offensive scheme of things. Smith garnered 1,157 rushing yards in 2001, the first Patriot to exceed 1,000 yards since Robert Edwards in 1998. Smith lacked breakaway speed, but his straight ahead power style gave the Patriots a terrific force up the middle. In most of the games, that style befits the Patriots much better than blinding speed.

His longest run was a 44-yarder against Miami, but his 40-yard touchdown burst to seal a win against Buffalo may have been his most significant. Also right up there on the significance scale was his 19-yard run around right end to seal the AFC Championship at Pittsburgh. Smith seemed to be the master of game-sealing runs, as his eight-yard right end run against Oakland ensured a chip shot overtime field goal for Adam Vinatieri, and his 5-yard run against Cleveland put the exclamation point on that contest.

Redmond didn’t put up flashy numbers in the regular season. He was fourth on the team in both rushing yards and pass receptions by a running back. But what Bill Belichick and Charlie Weis might take with them into 2002 is Redmond’s performance in the Oakland playoff game and the Super Bowl.

Brady went more to Faulk and Edwards on dumps out of the backfield than Redmond, but they may want to reconsider in 2002 and go more to Redmond. In the Oakland game, Redmond reeled off a critical 20-yard pass reception on the second play of overtime. He finished with four catches for 43 yards. And in the Super Bowl, Redmond hauled in the first three catches on the championship drive, his only three catches of the game. It was learned later that had Redmond not made any of these three catches, especially the last of the three in which he gained 11 yards and got out of bounds, Weis would have directed Brady to kill the clock and go for overtime.

Redmond is nowhere near the rusher as he is the pass receiver. He lacks the power to complement his speed, and is unable to rip off runs that require brute strength. But give him the ball on a screen or a dump pattern with some open space to run in, and he runs past a lot of linebackers and down linemen. Redmond is a good third down back on obvious pass plays, but is of far less value as a general rushing back.

Belichick may have to make a decision on Smith, but he also may not want to keep both Faulk and Redmond on the roster, especially if he can pluck a young every down back between now and Smithfield. Faulk, who cured his fumbleitis problems in 2002, has a lot to offer the team in terms of versatility, and that may be what keeps he and Redmond around for a while.

Faulk had the most pass receptions for a running back. He also can return kicks, run out of the shotgun (and sometimes the ball is snapped to him and not Brady), and he can even throw the ball (his passer rating is 118.8) with his quarterback on the receiving end. Faulk is too tiny to be a big time running back, as he lacks the leg mass that usually helps runners of his height to succeed. But he can do a lot of things, which always goes a long way in the NFL.

Pass might be the odd man out if the Patriots want to bring in new blood and they manage to retain Smith. Pass has also seen duty as a kickoff returner, but has not shown that Belichick needs to give him more playing time. He had impressive collegiate lineage from Georgia (Robert Edwards, Terrell Davis), but lineage doesn’t necessarily translate into talent.

Marc Edwards, like Smith, was one of the free agent plums that helped define this team. Edwards shook off an early season fumble that helped cost them a win against the Jets in Week 2 to post a solid season as a blocker and a pass receiver. He was fourth on the team in pass receptions, and made some great short yard runs. But his lead blocking was a big help to Smith. Redmond got more props in picking up blitzers, but Edwards gave the Patriots an answer to Sam Gash, something the team had lacked since Gash’s departure.

How the non-fullbacks shape up in 2002 will largely depend upon what happens to Smith.

Whether to keep him or not, and for how long, is subject to debate. Though Smith has proven his worth to the Patriots, he is both old and in line for a major financial upgrade. Given that the Patriots have one of the better-managed salary caps in the NFL, the Patriots may not want to throw top dollars at Smith.

And there is indeed debate. Several times last fall on WBZ’s Sports Final, Michael Felger of the Herald and Nick Cafardo of the Globe clashed on their views regarding Smith. Cafardo insisted that the Patriots lock up Smith for three years, while Felger wants the Patriots to go younger and faster and let Smith go. Both men were passionate and trashed out the other for thinking otherwise.

Well, what would you do?

The smart thinking is to let the football brains of the Patriots decide, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Hey, they just won the whole thing, so obviously they know how to get things done.

If Smith doesn’t ask for the moon, the team should try and lock him in for the next two years. If Smith insists on three years, then the Patriots should backload the deal which will ease the cap bite and protect them if he starts to wilt by the time he turns 33. Letting Smith go is chancy, since the team will likely need to spend its highest draft picks on linebackers and defensive linemen.

Does Smith want to stay? Smith felt great here in Foxborough, a refreshing change from his last days in Buffalo. But as much as Smith feels needed here in New England, his 2001 performance will cause a lot of other teams to want him to feel needed in their domain. Smith’s biggest negatives are his age and his lack of explosive speed. But he is a quality back who can give the Patriots at least two more productive years.

Smith’s 2001 performance further magnified the need for any NFL team to have a stud in the backfield. When you look around the league at such talents as Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis and Edgerrin James, and then you see the sudden improvement in the Patriot offense since Smith’s arrival, you begin to understand what a great running back means to a team, and once again agonize at the fact that Martin used to be a Patriot.

Of course, the Patriots won the whole thing with Smith, and Martin has yet to touch a Vince.

Now that the Patriots once again view a fork in the road with a 1,000-yard back, it will be interesting to see how they handle it, mindful of how Martin’s departure affected the team. Maybe the Patriots will overpay for Smith, who knows. But the Patriots are a very disciplined organization, and that discipline will be severely tested with Smith and other key free agents (Vinatieri, Roman Phifer).

But there can be no mistaking what Smith meant to the World Champs.

And Smith cannot mistake how appreciated he was here in New England.

The winning returned. Simple as that.

Next feature: Receivers

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