FOXBORO, Mass. — New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made an extremely valid point Wednesday when questioned why the team’s rookie class hasn’t received more extensive playing time.
“I mean, we’re 10-3,” Belichick said. “I wouldn’t say we have a terrible team.”
Fair. True. Good point.
But the Patriots have lost three of their last five games, and the team is not without its struggles. New England’s offense as a whole has struggled as of late, and it’s had trouble running the ball all season. Starting running back Sony Michel is coming off of a five-carry, 8-yard performance and he’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry on the season. Rex Burkhead hasn’t fared much better, averaging 3.8 yards per clip, while James White — 4.1 yards per carry — and Brandon Bolden — 4.5 yards per carry — have been above average in the ball-carrying department. Rookie Damien Harris has played just five snaps all season and carried the ball four times for 12 yards. He’s played in just two games, both of which came against the New York Jets.
Michel over the last two games has received a bulk of his total carries early in the game before the Patriots went away from him.
“That’s just how it’s gone,” Belichick said Monday.
It makes a certain degree of sense that the Patriots have stopped using Michel once they begin trailing in games. But it’s hard to believe New England would go away from Michel if he was efficient.
The Patriots have a potential jolt for their rushing attack in Harris, who was selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft as a bit of a surprise selection. The common theory is Harris was selected as Michel insurance. For all of Michel’s struggles this season, he has at least stayed healthy. The 2018 first-round pick dealt with injuries last summer and this offseason and played in 13 of 16 games in 2018. He’s played every game and — knock on wood — hasn’t even been listed on the injury report this season.
That comes as a welcome surprise even if Michel is not producing as hoped. But why not try Harris in the backfield even with Michel fully healthy?
“Yeah. Well, I told you each week we’ll do what we — the best we can each week to make the decisions and do the best we can to put a competitive team out there and try to beat our opponent,” Belichick said when asked Wednesday. “We did that last week, the other 13 games, and we’ll do it going forward.”
That obviously doesn’t directly address the question. But even if the Patriots are willing to go away from Michel and turn to White in a given game, they aren’t willing to give up on the second-year pro overall after investing a first-round pick in the back. Using Harris as an early-down option if Michel is still healthy would be, to some degree, admitting that first-round pick is not panning out as desired.
Michel was good last season; he’s been below average thus far in the current campaign. It’s too early to give up on the Georgia product, but if Harris could help, then he should probably get a shot.
Patriots fans have started clamoring for in-house help with the offense sputtering. While activating Harris seems like a worthwhile venture, it likely won’t be coming anytime soon as long as Michel stays off the injury report.