FOXBOROUGH - It seemed like a foregone conclusion. Corey Dillon was no longer with the Patriots, so Laurence Maroney would be the team's lead running back, forced to carry a much heavier load than he did as a rookie.
Yet through two games of the 2007 season, the Patriots' projected lead back isn't leading by much. In fact, the team's approach strikes a closer resemblance to last year than, say, the 2004 season, when Dillon carried 345 times, almost 300 attempts more than the next running back on the depth chart.
If the trend continues, the Patriots will be more of a 1-2 punch than many expected, with free agent import Sammy Morris taking on an expanded role.
Consider that in wins over the Jets and Chargers, Maroney has totaled 35 rushes and Morris 21. In terms of total snaps, Maroney has played 56 and Morris 36.
The closer-than-anticipated split is different from what is taking place in several other NFL cities, such as Indianapolis, where Joseph Addai has 43 of the team's 51 carries, or St. Louis, where Steven Jackson has 39 of 44.
Other teams are also turning to workhorses like Arizona's Edgerrin James (50 of 64), Baltimore's Willis McGahee (45 of 59), Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch (37 of 48), Chicago's Cedric Benson (43 of 55), Cincinnati's Rudi Johnson (41 of 49), Cleveland's Jamal Lewis (38 of 46), the Jets' Thomas Jones (38 of 46), San Francisco's Frank Gore (38 of 50), and Seattle's Shaun Alexander (45 of 58).
Yet for now, at least, the Patriots are leaning more toward the two-pronged approach.
The speedy Maroney, although sometimes prone to dance behind the line of scrimmage instead of attacking the hole, is averaging 4.3 yards per attempt, while the hard-charging, versatile Morris is at an impressive 5 yards per clip.
The coaching staff's confidence in both was reflected in how the team approached Sunday night's game against the Chargers, essentially splitting duties by series. After third-down back Kevin Faulk played the first two series, the Patriots rotated the rest of the way, with Maroney taking one series, Morris the next.
So when the Patriots drove 10 plays and 75 yards in the first quarter on a march that culminated with quarterback Tom Brady hitting Randy Moss on a 23-yard touchdown pass, Maroney was on the field for every play.
On the next drive, which covered 50 yards on 10 plays, it was all Morris.
And back and forth they went, with a sprinkling of Faulk on some third downs, and then bulldozing fullback Heath Evans closing things out with some between-the-tackles running late in the fourth quarter. On the 15-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter, Maroney took the majority of snaps before Morris came on to power his way into the end zone from 3 yards.
For a group that has been carving out an identity, it's been a solid start to the year.
"We like them all," said coach Bill Belichick. "We think they can all be productive, so we're going to use them."
Last year, the Dillon-Maroney combination essentially went 50-50, as Dillon averaged 12.4 carries per game and Maroney 12.5.
When it was suggested to Maroney on the first day of 2007 training camp that he would become the Patriots' lead back, he stiff-armed the thought, saying that he simply might see a few more carries. Ditto for Belichick, who when asked at one point about his new lead back looked at the questioner and said something to the extent of "those are your words, not mine."
Perhaps underestimated in all the outside projections was Morris, an eight-year veteran whom the Patriots targeted on the first day of free agency, signing him to a four-year contract that included a $1.5 million signing bonus and $750,000 roster bonus. Morris also had some feelers from the Chiefs in free agency, but he never made it past New England, a result of the Patriots' aggressiveness.
What the Patriots liked in the 6-foot, 220-pound Morris was his diverse skills and ability to factor into special teams units, something that Dillon - who had slowed down by the end of last year - did not provide.
Still, Morris was coming off a season in which he carried only 92 times. The year before that, he had just 16 rushes. His career high of 132 came in 2004 with the Dolphins, when he subbed in for Ricky Williams, so if the current pace continues, he easily would eclipse his career high.
Of course, as the Patriots have shown over the years, they are apt to change course without notice. And perhaps part of the plan is managing Maroney as he returns from offseason shoulder surgery.
But through two games, the team's usage of running backs has offered a dash of the unexpected.