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LeGarrette Blount's record-setting day is encouraging -- and a blast from the past

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 30, 2013 02:12 AM

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We'll begin this prolonged and deserved salute to LeGarrette Blount's record-setting performance in the Patriots' bye-clinching 34-20 victory over the Buffalo Bills with the words of a past and permanent Patriot who gave us more than a few Sundays to remember in his own right.

I presume Andre Tippett requires no introduction; if he does, I'm guessing you boarded this bandwagon sometime in the aftermath of Foxboro Stadium's snow-globe farewell, and no sooner.

Oh, of course you know Tippett. No. 56. Top-5 player in Patriots history, top-three (I go John Hannah, Tippett, Mike Haynes) before the dawn of the Belichick/Brady era. Owner of a super-exclusive mustard-colored jacket. The Tim Raines to Lawrence Taylor's Rickey Henderson. Superb post-retirement ambassador for the Patriots organization.

Tippett has achieved a lot. Mastered a lot. But his analogy game? It seems that still needs some work:

harrisfrancofinn1229.jpgNow there's no shame in comparing Blount -- who set a franchise record with 334 total yards, including 189 on the ground, as the Patriots secured the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye for the fifth straight season -- to Harris. He played a featured role on four Steelers Super Bowl champions. He retired in 1984 trailing only Jim Brown in career rushing yards. He's a Hall of Famer, Tippett's Canton compadre.

The comparison is a high compliment -- for the most part. The knock on Harris -- vocalized most often by Jim Brown -- is that he ran out of bounds to avoid hits too often. "The only reason to run out of bounds is to stop the clock,'' said Brown in 1984, when at age 48 he was hinting he would come out of retirement to keep Harris from breaking his all-time rushing record. "[The only way to play] is like there is no next game."

Sunday, Blount's GPS was set for the goal line, never the sideline, and the intent was play to such a level that the Patriots would be assured of having no next game next week -- had they lost, they would have been the No. 4 seed in the AFC, missing out on a bye that is so essential to their bruised and battered roster.

Playing in conditions that turned the Gillette Stadium turf into an Olympic swimming pool, Blount took to the circumstances like a duck to water. His rushing total was the fifth-best in franchise history. He had over 100 rushing yards slightly more than two minutes into the second quarter. He scored a pair of long rushing touchdowns -- a 36-yarder in the second quarter and a clinching 35-yard run late in the fourth after the resilient Bills had pulled within a touchdown with under four minutes remaining.

“I mean, I like touching the ball no matter what the weather is. I’m not going to argue with them if they want to give it to us,'' Blount said.

Every time the Bills got close, Blount did something to shift the momentum the Patriots' way.

After the Bills closed to 16-10 late in the third quarter, Blount returned the kickoff 83 yards, setting up a Shane Vereen touchdown four seconds into the fourth quarter. The Bills counter-punched again on Fred Jackson's 5-yard scoring run to make it 24-17, so Blount simply did it again, returning the ensuing kickoff 62 yards to set up an eventual Stephen Gostkowski field goal.

Blount didn't do it all for the Patriots Sunday. It just seemed that way. He was either running over or past a Bills defender or three every time you looked up.

"He carried the team on his back most of the day,'' said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who was aware Blount set a Patriots total yardage standard. "He had [334] yards, I don’t know how much more we had besides that. But I’d say he did the bulk of it, no question. He had some help, but he did a great job; tremendous."

When told of Belichick's praise, Blount was quick to deflect it toward his teammates, though he clearly got a kick out of winning such high praise from his coach.

"He hugged me!,'' Blount laughed, referring to Belichick's congratulations in the form of a bear hug in the game's waning moments.

“I wouldn’t say [I carried the team]," Blount said. "On the returns that I had, I didn’t get touched for like the first thirty yards, so I tip my hat off to those guys, the core special teams guys. And the offensive line played amazing for both of us, me and [Stevan] Ridley and Shane [Vereen]. You can’t ever give them enough credit.”

dillonmartinfinn1228.jpgFunny thing about credit -- sometimes you don't recognize who deserved a larger dose until the moment is revisited seasons later. Blount now seems poised to fill the role of hard-running, bad-weather running back, a job Antowain Smith filled ably (and in retrospect, without all the respect he was due) in the Patriots' first two Super Bowl championships in 2001 and '03. Smith wasn't flashy, but he habitually got you three yards on 3rd and 2, rarely fumbled, and had a little more open-field wiggle than he got credit for.

Smith and Blount are very similar, certainly a better analogy than what Tippett went for on Twitter. The Patriots did win a pair of Super Bowls with Smith as the primary back -- and this remarkably determined and resourceful team is revealing a lot of similarities lately to those pair of champions. But there's a bigger name in recent Patriots lore who made a habit in 2004 of doing what Blount did Sunday.

Corey Dillon delivered the best single season in '04 a Patriots back has ever submitted, rushing for 1,635 yards in the regular season, then another 292 in the playoffs. Dillon had some brilliant individual games -- he ran for over 100 yards nine times, including 144 in a cut-that-meat 20-3 win over Peyton Manning and the Colts in the divisional playoffs.

Blount isn't Dillon, the 17th-leading rusher in league history, sandwiched between John Riggins and O.J. Simpson. But he's capable of doing a spot-on impersonation, and that might just be enough.

"He’s big and when he gets going downhill, he’s just a big guy – bigger than anybody that’s trying to tackle him,'' said Tom Brady. "So he can just put his head on the pile and the offensive line knows that if they’ve got a hat on a hat, we’re going to make some yards."

Blount's always been capable of putting a hat on a hat and winning the battle, dating back to his days at Oregon. His problem is that he occasionally put a fist to a face, and his inability to control his temper was one reason he went undrafted out of college.

He became the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' bargain as a rookie, running for more than 1,000 yards, but he lost his job to Doug Martin last season. The Patriots acquired him on draft weekend in April for overhyped Olympic sprinter/would-be kick-returner Jeff Demps and a seventh-round pick.

While there was speculation in camp that he might not stick because he doesn't play special teams, Belichick apparently knew he had someone who could help his team. That, in part, was because of some quality intelligence he got from another talented but controversial player Greg Schiano had gifted the Patriots the season before.

"I think definitely an assist on this one has to go to our assistant pro personnel director – [Aqib] Talib – who I talked to before we traded for LeGarrette and everything he said about him was absolutely right,'' said Belichick. "He’s a good football player who loves to play, works hard and is a team player; great guy for the team in the locker room. He’s been all those things."

Talib explained that Blount is his best friend in the league. Blount stayed with him upon joining the Patriots -- a prime setup for a buddy comedy if there ever was one -- and now he is his next-door neighbor.

"[I told Bill] you're going to get explosive plays from him, and he gonna be great in this locker room. You're not gonna have a problem with him in this locker room," Talib said.

"I told him the truth. And now it's wonderful. Have a day like that, a game like that. Be on the same team with me again, man. Live right next door to me. Hey, I can't do nothing but smile. That's my dog."

And did his dog ever have a day.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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