When the Patriots signed Fred Taylor in the offseason, he immediately improved the team's rushing game. Not only would Taylor bring 11 years and 11,000 yards of experience, but he was thought to be the perfect mentor for Laurence Maroney.
Earlier in his career, Taylor battled the nickname "Fragile Fred," missing 23 of 48 games from 1999 to 2001 due to injury. Maroney, who missed 18 games in his first three seasons and has already suffered a thigh problem this year, could learn from Taylor, who recovered from his early injuries to start 100 of 112 games.
Now, that has all changed.
Taylor injured his ankle on a play that didn't look to involve heavy contact. Fragile? No. It's unfair to call the 15th-leading rusher in NFL history soft, but his uncertain status for the remainder of the season puts a heavier burden on Maroney to carry the load on offense.
The Patriots may be able to survive without impressive production from the fourth-year running back, but his career in the NFL could hang in the balance over the next 13 weeks. And though his lackluster performance last week wasn't inspiring — drawing boos from the home crowd — Maroney is accepting the challenge.
"I really don't pay attention to it. I really don't," Maroney told The Boston Globe, regarding the boos from Patriots fans. "Like I say, I just take it and make something that everybody looks at. Take a negative and make something good out of it.
"My mindset is they want me to do better, so, Mr. Maroney, let's do better."
Though he's saying all the right things, he's done so before. Yet his running style has never endeared him to Patriots fans who fell in love with Corey Dillon's straight-ahead, smashmouth approach from 2004 to 2006.
Maroney was, however, successful in his first two seasons, even while battling injuries. He rushed for 1,580 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons, averaging nearly 28 yards on kick returns in his rookie season. He was perhaps the second-most important player on the field in the 2007 playoff run, picking up 122 yards and a touchdown in both the divisional game against the Jaguars and the AFC Championship Game against the Chargers.
Since then, however, opinions on the 24-year-old out of the University of Minnesota have soured. He's already suffered a thigh injury this year, and has averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. At times, it seems as though the field is tilted against him, the combination of some bad luck with split-second decisions has resulted in a fair share of one-yard gains out of bounds.
Of course, he won't have to carry the rushing load on his own — Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be there to help out. But with Maroney in the final year of his rookie contract, the remainder of this season will go a long way in determining Maroney's future, whether it is in New England or elsewhere.
For his part, he's not letting last week's booing affect his mentality.
“It’s never one of those things where I think the fans dislike me or don’t want me to be a running back here no more,’’ Maroney told the Globe. “I look at it as they want me to do good and they expect more from me, and that’s basically what they’re letting me know. They expect more, and I have to give them more.’’
"I'll take it as my way of saying I hear you. I hear the cries, and I will deliver."
For now, Maroney can only quiet his critics by proving he's capable on the football field. That journey, however, will be an uphill climb.
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