The man who never can gain favor with New England fans has another big game for the Patriots on Sunday, yet afterward, the only compliment you'll hear anyone say about the fourth-year running back is that he showed "glimpses" of his true capability.
But make no mistake: Maroney doesn't dance. He is simply a solid running back on a team that does not emphasize the value of a running game. When Maroney gets caught in the backfield, it's not because he spent too much time hopping around — it's because he had nowhere to go.
If you want to spot a flaw in Maroney's game, take issue with his newfound case of fumblitis. Though based on his career history (one fumble lost in his previous three seasons and zero in college), his untimely fumbles over the last two weeks appear to be more of an aberration than anything.
As was the case again on Sunday, when Maroney has even a little room, he can make the most of it. And when the Patriots have needed him the most this season, he's performed his best.
On Sunday, Maroney received 76 percent of handoffs to running backs — the second-highest such mark of any back this season. He responded well, averaging 3.5 yards per carry and finding the end zone twice. The only higher percentage of carries by one back was also handled by Maroney, when he was given 86 percent of running back carries in Week 9 against the Dolphins. In that game, Maroney had 20 rushes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Even with that heavy load, Maroney wasn't the No. 1 star of the offense against the Jets. Wes Welker and Tom Brady stole the show, while many eyes were glued to Randy Moss in his matchup with Darrelle Revis. But being the superstar running back isn't a role that Maroney needs to fill. As long as he can average 3.5 yards per carry (his season average is 3.9), the Patriots will be in good shape.
With Sammy Morris still on the mend from a knee injury and Fred Taylor still recovering from ankle surgery, Maroney has elevated his play to provide the Patriots with a No. 1 back when they need one. In a backfield that was once full of able-bodied talent, Maroney is essentially the only man left standing. Even with the fumble on Sunday, Maroney was as good as he's ever been, finding holes, flying through them and barrelling over safeties.
Of course, when the television crew of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms drew a comparison of Maroney to former college teammate Marion Barber, it was more than a stretch. Maroney (2,128 career rushing yards, 361 career receiving yards, 19 career TDs) is not Barber (3,624 yards, 1,106 receiving yards, 46 TDs), but he doesn't need to be.
The Patriots' offense is — rightfully — centered around Brady. In passing situations, the Patriots pass. In running situations, the Patriots pass. With a 10-point lead and less than 10 minutes left in Sunday's game, the Patriots attempted three passes (four if you count a penalty on Moss) before going to the ground on the Jets' 1-yard line. Later, with a comfortable 17-point lead and 2:36 left in the game, Brady hit Welker across the middle for a first down, weighing the reward of a first down over the risk of a clock stoppage. With less than a minute left, Brady tried to connect with Moss for one last bomb, which fell incomplete.
There's nothing wrong with the Patriots' system, but it doesn't mean Maroney should take on the criticism that is routinely dumped on him for the team's lack of running game. To his credit, it's never seemed to bother him (he made it fairly clear in his Voltron analogy last week that he's usually in a loose mood), and Bill Belichick clearly has trust in him. If the coach didn't, Maroney would have been stuck on the bench after his first-quarter fumble on Sunday.
But Maroney was given the ball 19 times after that, and he did some damage. Not enough damage, of course, to quiet his detractors, but enough to help win a football game — and that's all the Patriots need.