FOXBORO, Mass. — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both used the same word Friday to describe what Rex Burkhead has brought to the New England Patriots since his return from injured reserve two weeks ago:
Belichick, who made the decision to place Burkhead on IR after he suffered a neck injury in Week 3, said the running back has played with determination and focus following his two-month layoff. The mandatory time away from the field, the coach said, benefited Burkhead, who’s dealt with myriad injuries since joining the Patriots before the 2017 season.
“He has a lot of confidence, which is great,” Belichick said. “When we put Rex on IR, once he was on IR, then he was out for an established period of time, so there was no trying to get back week to week.
“Sometimes, players feel like they’re letting the team down because they’re not out there and they’re trying so hard to get back. Once you put a player on injured reserve, then he’s out for a set period of time. There’s nothing he can do but wait until that time period expires, and I think in this particular case, with this particular injury, that was the right thing (for) this particular player, who’s very competitive and very team-oriented. It was the best thing for him to do.”
Since NFL rules require players who are placed on IR to sit out at least eight games and miss a minimum of six weeks of practice, moving Burkhead to that list meant he wouldn’t be able to rush his way back into the lineup.
“We were on a normal pace,” Belichick explained. “We weren’t trying to accelerate it, because there was nowhere to go. So as he went through the various processes and was able to move forward in his return to play, when he was ready to come back, it was really ready. There was no, ‘I’ve got a little further to go, I’ve got a little more to do, I’m not quite there yet.’ I think that all of that had passed.
“What he needed to do was get on the field, and he did that. There were two weeks there before he was eligible to come back that he would practice. I think he gained some confidence there with some contact and things like that, and then when he started playing, he has played well.”
Having Burkhead back in the mix has greatly improved the Patriots’ backfield depth. After entering multiple games with James White, Kenjon Barner and converted receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as their only ball-carrying options, New England now boasts a full stable in Burkhead, White and rookie Sony Michel, who also missed considerable time with a knee injury.
“Certainly, Rex is a big addition out there, and he’s a very explosive player,” Brady said. “He makes a lot of great plays for us running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield. Everyone has a lot of confidence in him, so (having him back) has helped a lot between him and Sony and helped James White. James has been so productive for us this year. But having everyone available has been a big boost for our team.”
The Patriots’ multi-faceted ground game generated the team’s fourth-highest rushing total of the season in Burkhead’s first game back as he, Michel, White, Patterson, Julian Edelman, James Develin and Brady combined for 160 yards on 39 carries in a 24-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings.
The unit struggled Sunday in New England’s 34-33 loss to the Miami Dolphins, however, managing just 77 total rushing yards (third-lowest of the season) and averaging a mere 2.6 yards per carry (second-lowest).
Burkhead had a 10-yard rush and a 15-yard reception against Minnesota but otherwise has been held in check since his return, totaling 22 yards on 11 carries and 23 yards on three catches with no touchdowns over the last two games.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images