Change is constant.
In Foxborough, where the offensive mastery has been defined by Tom Brady’s magical reign for 13 seasons, the yearning for balance comes and goes. From the early 2000s, when the team featured running backs Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk, and Corey Dillon, the impact of the running game was integral to the team’s first three Super Bowls. Those years were followed by mostly modest tenures between Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whose stints were far overshadowed by Brady’s brilliance.
With the latest class, most recently featuring Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead, the Patriots once again attempted to close the balance gap. Even with Woodhead’s departure, a player who has the ability to make defenders miss in small spaces and is a dependable third-down receiver, this position group is a source of strength for the offense, especially after the team has overhauled its wide receivers group. The Patriots’ running game accounted for 2,184 yards last season, or 31.9 percent of the offense. Ridley (1,263 yards, 12 touchdowns) is obviously a big part of that.
But looking back speaks volumes to how balance to the offense can be perceived. For instance, in 2007, the rushing game was only 28 percent of the offense. When Tom Brady threw for a personal record 5,235 yards in 2011, the rushing attack was 25.7 percent of the offense. The team’s current increase over a two-year period – 25.7 to 31.9 percent – shows the Patriots 2012 stats reflect more closely with its Super Bowl winning season in 2004, when the rushing game was 37 percent of the offense, although still far off the mark.
Apparently for the Patriots, change comes in cycles.
With the Patriots’ steady shift back to a balanced attack, losing Woodhead comes at a time when the Patriots feel they have the parts to easily replace him. Shane Vereen, in his third year now in the league, worked out as the team’s third down running back last season before injuries took him out of competition with Woodhead. And newly signed running back Leon Washington has experience catching the ball out of the backfield and being a change-of-pace runner.
“This game, we’re always losing somebody,” said Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, who has coached for 36 years, including 21 in the NFL and the last 15 with the Patriots. “That’s not the issue. It’s the next guy. You’re gonna lose people, you’re gonna change. That’s part of this business. But it’s the next guy’s opportunity to step up and make something happen. We got some guys in here [who] have to step up and make something happen. That’s what it’s all about. We’re gonna find out who is going to do that.”
The hope is that Vereen makes the leap, both in terms of health and in consistency. He’s missed 14 of 32 possible regular season games. After a fine division championship performance against the Houston Texas, catching two touchdowns and running for another, he had a forgettable outing in the AFC Championship against the Baltimore Ravens, where he recorded 38 yards from scrimmage and a drop.
“Well, I hope it’s a great year for him,” Fears said. “But like everybody, Shane’s got to get it done himself. You know, I think he’s working his butt off, I think he’s getting what he needs to get done, done out here. He’s learning the system. I think he’s looking good.”
Improvements, according to Fears, are needed all-around and for everyone.
“Nobody has anything down. We don’t have a thing down. So everybody has got everything to improve on. So you name it, [Ridley’s] got to improve on it. So we’re gonna do that. That’s what we’re going to work on, we’re going to work on our total game. And everything that we’re doing we’re going to improve.”
Washington, along with LeGarrette Blount, will bring an interesting dynamic to the fold this season as both experienced running backs with varying talents. So far, Washington has appeared to fall in line with the third-down running back committee and compete on special teams during the organized team activities. Blount has scarcely impressed while on the field.
“LeGarrette’s a big guy,” Fears said. “We’ll see where he’s going to be. He’s going to determine that by what he does. We don’t force anything on anybody. Everybody sort of determines that by what they do on the field. So we’re going to give them the opportunity to show their stuff and see what happens.”
With this core group of running backs, led by Ridley, the Patriots can continue the trend toward balance, and hopefully to another Super Bowl win.
5 players to watch going into training camp
In no particular order, a look at some interesting players who will be story lines ahead of the 2013 season.
1. Shane Vereen — Can he stay healthy and can he be consistent? We’ll just attach those goals to him.
2. Dane Fletcher — Useful in 2011 (five starts, 32 tackles) and 2010 (13 games played, 23 tackles), can he be useful again? And in what capacity?
3. Jamie Collins — What, exactly, will his role be in this Patriots defense? Is he more than a situational pass rusher?
4. Aaron Dobson — As if he doesn’t have enough attention, the rookie will surely continue to be the focus of observation through camp and into the season. Will he end up as the team’s starting outside receiver?
5. Ras-I Dowling — Once again, Dowling looks good in practice. But will he play more than a handful of games in 2013?
Tweet of the week
Is it weird that I want to know which newspaper?
When you run out of toilet paper, use paper towels, NOT newspaper. Speaking from VERY recent experience… 😕
— Zoltan Mesko (@ZoltanMesko) June 6, 2013
Boston.com reader EdsoFan reacts to the news that Patriots coach Bill Belichick does not, in fact, hate Tim Tebow:
Hey, he doesn’t hate Bon Jovi either, but he’s not going to put him on the team. Another media made up story….
The story was always about Bill Belichick not being a fan of Tim Tebow’s game. That’s why Belichick responded to the question. But I would also argue, given Belichick’s response, that we don’t know how he actually feels about Tebow as a player now, or more than we did 48 hours ago. What’s said publicly and privately are two very different things. He could still very well despise him as a player. And he wouldn’t be alone in doing so, either.
– Zoltan Mesko’s Zolioke, a karaoke event featuring current and former Patriots players, is taking place 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at Royale Nightclub in Boston. The charity event benefits the Zoltan Mesko Foundation, which partners with children’s hospitals. Tom Brady, Jerod Mayo, Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Stephen Gostkowski, Chandler Jones, Ryan Wendell, Matthew SLater, Shane Vereen, Matt Light, Tedy Bruschi and Sammy Morris are expected to attend.
– Minicamp is June 11-13. This is a required event for all Patriots players.
– Training camp is expected to be the last week of July, although the dates have yet to be announced.
– Training camp cut-down dates will be Aug. 27 (75 players) and Aug. 31 (53 players).
– The Patriots open the season on Sunday Sept. 8 in Buffalo. We’re only 93 days away.
Zuri Berry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.