Considering the New England Patriots are a combined 40-9 over the last three seasons — including the playoffs — with or without him, perhaps this is an overstatement of worth, but is any player outside of quarterback Tom Brady more valuable right to this team than running back Dion Lewis?
Since arriving in 2015, the Patriots are 27-2 in games in which a healthy Lewis is in the lineup, the only two losses coming earlier this season to the team formerly known as the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs and the Carolina Panthers, when Bill Belichick’s Running Back by Committee was but in the planning stages of its potential effectiveness. That makes New England a mere 13-7 over the past three season when Lewis hasn’t been around.
They’re 10-2 this season without Julian Edelman. The defense keeps getting better each week without the aid of team captain Dont’a Hightower. They managed to win the Super Bowl with the greatest comeback in NFL history last February without Rob Gronkowski, possibly the greatest tight end to ever play the position.
If Lewis were around for the second half of the 2015 season, are we talking about the Patriots going for four in a row come playoff time?
In a backfield that seemed to anoint Mike Gillislee the heir apparent to whatever LeGarrette Blount left behind in his departure last offseason with a three-score performance on Opening Night, it has instead turned out to be Lewis and Rex Burkhead sharing the load with Super Bowl hero James White and the intangible James Develin.
Heck, over the first three weeks of the season, Lewis saw only 32 snaps and 12 touches, activity which suggested he was getting phased out in favor of the newcomers and White. Over the first quarter of the season, Lewis had run for a mere 46 yards, an average of 11.5 yards per game.
“My time will come,” Lewis told NBC Sports Boston in September. “I know what kind of player I am. My teammates know what type of player I am. I’ll get my chance and show people what I can do, but I don’t really have no control over that.
“I don’t like to watch. It’s tough. Things will work out. Eventually they’ll work out, and when I get my chance, you’ll see a lot of special things.”
That was the deal in 2015, when Lewis’ sharp cuts burst onto the Patriots’ scene, giving them needed depth in the running game. Before tearing his ACL, Lewis racked up 622 yards from scrimmage over six games, helping morph his perceived role from Jonas Gray substitute to integral asset. He’s started only five of the 12 games this season, but has 677 yards from scrimmage, including 92 rushing yards in Sunday’s 23-3 win over the Buffalo Bills, a game in which Burkhead added 78 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“I don’t think you can just count us dropping back 50-60 times and throw the ball,” Brady said after a so-so performance behind center Sunday. “I think you really have to defend the running game. Our play actions come off of that and we have a bunch of big plays off of play action today. You have to be able to do both and we were able to do both today.”
Over the last four games this season, Lewis has run the ball 54 times for 319 yards, an average of 79.8 yards per game, and 5.91 yards per carry.
“We feel good,” Lewis said. “We still know we have a long way to go. There are still a lot of errors we can improve and be better as a team so definitely we’re not a finished product by any means, so we have to get grinding week in and week out and get better.”
Over that same time span, Burkhead has carried the ball 40 times for 180 yards, 4.5 yards per carry.
“You never know what the weather could be, especially this month and moving forward,” Burkhead said. “It’s big for us, it helps our offense, and like you said, any time we can establish that it’s going to help us out.”
On Sunday, it was the Patriots’ ability to run the ball that evened out what was a lackluster first half in Orchard Park. Brady found himself sacked three times in the half, and when he wasn’t jawing at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in regards to missing receivers who were more open than your neighborhood Kohl’s on Black Friday, there was a general funk about Brady’s game that never really disappeared until the third quarter.
“We try to go out there and score points and run the offense, and win games,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “So, if we run it, we run it. If we throw it, we throw it. If we drop kick it, we drop kick it. Whatever we can do to move the ball and score points, that’s good. I’m not trying to create a bunch of stats, that’s not what we are trying to do. We are trying to win. If there are things that we can do to help us win, then that’s what we want to try to do.”
Score points. Win. Got it.
The stats are still pretty good though.
The Patriots are running the ball like it matters, when it matters, and Lewis has helped add a dimension to this team not unlike what Alvin Kamara has managed to do in New Orleans. Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks buoyed by emerging ground games?
Might sound like a dream scenario for Minnesota in two months.