FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots are preparing to "Cowboy Up" with uncertainty surrounding Sammy the Bull.
Running back Sammy Morris - a.k.a. Sammy the Bull to his teammates because of how he runs over would-be tacklers - did not take part in the Patriots' walkthrough practice yesterday. Knocked out of the second half of Monday night's victory over the Broncos because of a knee injury, Morris's status is one of the most pressing issues facing the team.
Because of that, running backs Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans found large crowds in front of their lockers yesterday at Gillette Stadium, with Faulk expressing surprise at the overflowing gathering of scribes and television cameras.
"I didn't have this many people at my birthday party, man," Faulk chuckled.
But Faulk is familiar with this drill.
One of the longest-tenured players on the team, a second-round draft choice in 1999, Faulk has consistently answered questions about the health of his fellow running backs - from Terry Allen in '99, to Antowain Smith in '03, to Corey Dillon in '05, to this season with Laurence Maroney, LaMont Jordan, and now Morris.
His response hasn't changed.
"We're all competitors," Faulk said yesterday. "Once a guy goes down, you know your workload is going to increase a little bit more, so you have to take that pride in what you do and lift it up."
Faulk and Co. obviously hope that Morris, who is coming off a career-high, 138-yard performance and is being counted on to help fill the void with Maroney being placed on injured reserve, isn't down for long.
In one respect, Morris's absence from yesterday's walkthrough is an ominous sign because walkthroughs are non-padded practices at half speed. It is common for injured players to take part in walkthroughs, as was the case yesterday with Jordan, who was seen hopping and skipping up and down the sideline during a kickoff return drill as he gets closer to a return from a right calf injury.
But in another respect, it's possible Morris was simply undergoing tests for the knee that could provide more information on what sidelined him. He didn't appear to hurt himself on his final carry against the Broncos, an impressive 29-yard jaunt off the left side, but might have absorbed a hit on one of his other 15 carries and played through it.
If Morris isn't ready for action Sunday against the Rams, and Jordan misses his third straight game, that would leave the Patriots with Faulk, Evans, and rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis at running back.
The situation, and questions about the Patriots' ability to overcome such shorthanded dilemmas in the past, had Evans reflecting on his initial days in New England in 2005.
Signed Nov. 1 as a free agent with Dillon ailing, he stepped into a lead role 13 days later and looked like John Riggins in rushing for a career-high 84 yards and a 2-point conversion, while also totaling three receptions for 18 yards.
The Patriots beat the Dolphins, 23-16, that day, a result that Evans points to as an example of how the Patriots often respond to injury-related situations.
"Obviously, when I got here it would have been a lot better to have Corey Dillon than me," he said.
But Evans believes the Patriots' way, which he said includes some hard coaching, has helped them fill gaps that often are too large for other teams to overcome.
This season, the 6-foot, 250-pound Evans has carried the ball only five times, instead being utilized as mostly a lead-blocking fullback. At 5-8, 202 pounds, Faulk isn't built for workhorse duty (23 carries in five games), and he's too valuable in the passing game and on punt returns to subject him to that punishment. Green-Ellis, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent, was promoted from the practice squad Oct. 11 and saw his most extensive playing time Monday night by filling in throughout the second half (13 carries, 65 yards, TD).
The 5-11, 215-pound Green-Ellis, who played at the University of Mississippi, has been a quick study.
"He is a tough kid, runs hard, has good balance, and catches the ball," said coach Bill Belichick. "We ask a lot of our running backs - in the running game, in the passing game, in pass protection. He's shown that he's on top of it and he's been productive for us with the ball in his hands."
If indeed the Patriots are without Morris, the expectation is that the next player must step in, whether it's Evans, Faulk, Green-Ellis, or someone else.
"I don't think it's about surviving," Evans said. "It's about guys taking the opportunity when they get them."
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.