FOXBORO, Mass. — Rex Burkhead has appeared in a total of 127 games between the college and NFL levels. He’s scored three touchdowns in exactly two of them.
The first came way back on Oct. 29, 2011, when he rushed for two scores and caught another as his Nebraska Cornhuskers beat Michigan State 24-3.
The second came Sunday afternoon.
Burkhead was the driving force of the New England Patriots’ offense in their 36-20 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders at Gillette Stadium.
The veteran running back scored each of the team’s three offensive touchdowns. He finished with 98 yards from scrimmage, split equally between rushing and receiving (49 apiece). He led the Patriots in both catches (a career-high-tying seven) and receiving yards and, along with Sony Michel and rookie J.J. Taylor, helped propel a rushing attack that piled up 250 yards — New England’s highest total since Week 16 of the 2018 season.
“(I’m) really just trying to do whatever role is given to me to the best of my abilities,” Burkhead said in his postgame video conference. “Coach (Josh) McDaniels does a great job of that, putting us in positions to succeed. So any time I get my number called, I just try to do that. When you have great teammates on your side like we do, it definitely makes your job easier.”
After a quiet start, Burkhead’s final 10 touches went for 17, 7, 11, 15, 4, 5, 6, 11, 14 and 2 yards, with two of the three shortest gains resulting in touchdowns. His overall 8.2 yards-per-carry average was the second-best mark of his NFL career.
Burkhead was one of several Patriots players to dedicate the win to fellow running back James White, who’s sat out the last two games following the tragic death of his father.
Performances like this from Burkhead aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t common, either.
Since joining the Patriots in 2017, Burkhead has been the definition of a change-of-pace back, playing more than 35% of snaps in just 18% of his appearances (seven of 39 entering Sunday) and more than 51% just twice.
Before Sunday, he’d surpassed 90 yards from scrimmage only twice in a New England uniform: in late-season wins over the Buffalo Bills in 2017 (78 rushing, 25 receiving, two total touchdowns) and 2019 (20 rushing, 77 receiving, one total touchdown).
“I’ve learned in my career and in my time in the NFL, you can’t relax,” Burkhead said of his varying levels of involvement. “Even if you may be in a zone or whatever — as a competitor, of course you want the ball in your hands, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team. So really my mindset is to stay humble out there, and stay the track and stay focused on my job and my keys out there every single play.”
Injuries remain an ever-present threat with Burkhead — he’s missed 17 games since the start of the 2017 season — but when healthy, he’s the Patriots’ most versatile back, offering a more well-rounded skill set than the run-focused Sony Michel or White, a premier pass-catcher.
He believes the Patriots are the perfect team for him.
“I love it here,” said Burkhead, who has yet to miss a game or practice this season. “Versatility is something I’ve always taken pride in, something my dad has preached to me from a young age, so to get in a place where they really use that has been fun, it’s been a blast. This is such a program, an organization here that really takes pride in being able to use your skill set to the best of your abilities.
“I just love it here, competing every single day to get better. Never resting on what you’ve done, just continue to grow and understand there’s always a challenge ahead.”
It will be interesting to see how the Patriots’ backfield morphs as the season progresses. Taylor and second-year pro Damien Harris both have dual-threat potential but lack NFL experience, though the former has impressed in his opportunities this season (11 carries, 43 yards on Sunday).
Harris, a training camp standout, is eligible to return from injured reserve this week, which would create a logjam at the position with five viable backs available.