New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick clearly ran out of patience with running back Laurence Maroney at the end of the 2009 season. But while Maroney’s butterfingers turned into a benching, they might not have signaled the end of his Patriots career.
Surely, Maroney has failed to grow into the feature back Belichick likely hoped he was getting when he selected the Minnesota product in the first round of the 2006 draft. Maroney’s career in New England has been disappointing, marred by injuries, an inability to adjust to the pro game and, recently, turnovers.
As often as Maroney has shown flashes of his potential, he’s displayed maddening cases of happy feet in the backfield. Throughout 2009, Gillette Stadium fans turned quicker on Maroney than any other player, with the one exception of Randy Moss in a Week 14 effort against Carolina. Simply put, there might be hundreds of thousands of New England natives who would gladly drive Maroney to the airport if that meant the conclusion of his days as a Patriot.
But that just might not be the case. Maroney has one year left on his rookie deal, and unless the Patriots acquire a big-time running back this offseason, Maroney will likely be around to finish his contract.
The thing is, Belichick’s track record indicates he’d prefer to use a variety of running backs, rather than employing one back to dominate the workload. And quite frankly, that theory makes a lot of sense. The running back position is very unique in the NFL nowadays, as the elite players face a high injury risk, and their performances drop off suddenly and unexpectedly.
Just six running backs eclipsed 300 carries this season — Tennessee’s Chris Johnson (358), New York’s Thomas Jones (331), St. Louis’ Steven Jackson (324), Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson (314), Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew (312) and Cincinnati’s Cedric Benson (301) — which is seven shy of the 13 backs who had 300 carries in 2002. In the last three seasons, teams have made a much greater effort to split carries between two backs, and it’s helped their guys stay healthier and fresher for December and January. Eventually, we’ll learn whether or not this growing strategy extends their careers, too.
Even further, heading into the 2009 regular season, it’s highly unlikely Johnson and Jones figured to get that many carries. But Johnson was just too good to take off the field, and Jones benefited from Leon Washington’s injury. Peterson, on the other hand, is considered the most complete running back in the league, but his increasingly disturbing fumbling issues actually limited his carries this season.
Also prior to 2009, Atlanta’s Michael Turner and Chicago’s Matt Forte were considered among the league’s upper echelon of backs, but both were very big disappointments for their respective teams. Another back, Houston’s Steve Slaton, saw a steep decline in performance as well as fumbling woes and a season-ending injury. On the other hand, Benson couldn’t ever get it going in Chicago, but he was an early-season MVP candidate in Cincinnati. Each of these examples proves just how big of a question mark players at this position can really be.
Before going further, let’s look at how the Patriots’ running game has stacked up since 2004, when they acquired Corey Dillon from the Bengals. (The trade came after the Pats had a terrible rushing attack in 2002 and 2003.)
2004: Patriots were fifth in the NFL in rush attempts, seventh in rushing yards, eighth in rushing touchdowns.
2005: 18th in attempts, 24th in yards, 11th in touchdowns.
2006: Sixth in attempts, 12th in yards, fourth in touchdowns.
2007: Ninth in attempts, 13th in yards, fifth in touchdowns.
2008: Fourth in attempts, sixth in yards, fourth in touchdowns.
2009: 10th in attempts, 12th in yards, sixth in touchdowns.
Obviously, there was a huge dropoff in production in 2005. Why was that, you ask? Well, after Dillon’s amazing 2004 campaign, he suffered through an array of injuries in 2005, and the Patriots didn’t have enough in reserve. So, Belichick has been burnt by relying on one guy in the past, and that could explain why he has since chosen to carry a stable of steady performers.
Certainly, it would be ideal for the Patriots to employ a star running back who could compliment their passing game, which could struggle in 2010 if Wes Welker misses time while recovering from his knee injury. But these backs don’t grow on trees. Clemson’s C.J. Spiller seems like he could be the best bet to be a sure thing in the draft, but the Patriots would probably need to trade up to land him. And for a team that needs more help in other areas, it wouldn’t make much sense to target a running back in the first round.
It was also rumored that Jackson could be traded out of St. Louis, and he would be a dynamite acquisition for the Patriots. But again, that would come at the expense of some high-value draft picks. Look at it this way: Belichick has won Super Bowls with lousy running games, but he’s never won a Super Bowl without an elite pass rush. By that logic, it would be irresponsible to chase down a big-name running back.
And because of that, Maroney should be expected back in Foxboro in 2010.