Through the first two weeks of the season, New England has gained 156 yards on the ground and ranks 26th in the NFL in rushing. Without a clear-cut No. 1 back.
Fred Taylor leads the team with 71 rushing yards on 17 carries, and Laurence Maroney is second with 55 yards on 16 carries. But neither is the top dog on the depth chart. They are 1A and 1B or 1B and 1A — depending on the down, situation and field position.
This kind of arrangement doesn?t allow for either player to get many reps. And without a steady diet of handoffs, pitches or touches, it?s tough for either player to find any kind of rhythm and get into a flow. Taylor and Maroney both have shown glimpses of breaking loose (Taylor has a long run of 13 yards, while Maroney has a long of 12), but once they break off a good run and begin to get warmed up, it?s time to go back to the sidelines and cool off.
They?ve done more starting and stopping than a clunker traded for cash. The only difference is the Patriots? running attack isn?t paying the same dividends.
But when given the chance, New England has racked up some rushing yardage. The team just hasn?t given Taylor or Maroney — or anyone else — too many chances.
In two games, the Patriots have rushed the ball 43 times. In those same 120 minutes, Tom Brady has attempted 100 passes. That?s an average of 50 passes per contest and 21.5 rushes per game. That might be a balanced attack in Europe using the metric system, but in the NFL, that?s a recipe for a predictable offense and getting the quarterback hurt.
Brady has escaped the emergency ward so far, but the Patriots could be pressing their luck if they don?t mix up the play calling a little bit more. In baseball, a batter can?t get a hit if he doesn?t swing the bat. In football, a team can?t have a good running game if it doesn?t call running plays.
But just calling running plays won?t be good enough. The Patriots need a ground game with some teeth — a rushing offense that defenses respect. This will prevent opponents from loading up the box and pressuring Brady from every angle.
Making Taylor or Maroney the No. 1 back could accomplish this. The committee strategy has worked in the past for the Patriots, but Brady wasn?t coming off knee surgery then.
New England doesn?t have the luxury of being patient now. The NFL regular season is already one-eighth over, and the schedule only gets tougher.
The Patriots need to call either Taylor or Maroney?s number and stick with him. Feed him the ball over and over and over again. Give him have an opportunity to run wild, and see what happens.
No. 21 has Hall of Fame credentials on his resume.
No. 39 has youth on his side, with something to prove.
Pick one running back. The other one can spell the go-to guy and provide a change of pace (along with Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris). If it doesn?t work out with the first choice, the Patriots can go to plan B, and pick the other back.
Success and 100-yard rushing days should follow, and that will open up the passing game. And passing is what Brady does best and what he loves to do most on the gridiron.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, a good ground game doesn?t guarantee a Super Bowl title — some of the best rushing attacks in history failed to win rings — but a good ground game is essential to keeping Brady upright this season. And keeping Brady healthy is how the Patriots are going to win games.
The one-back system might hold the key.