Anybody miss Rex Burkhead?
With all due respect to…never mind, nobody really comes to thought….the Patriots haven’t had a featured receiving back since Corey Dillon ran for 3,180 yards over a three-year period from 2004 to ’06. Sure, they employed the likes of Stephen Jackson and Fred Taylor for short periods of time, but their contributions more aptly compared to the panic one might have when one percent shows on your smartphone with no charging cord in sight.
So, here’s Sony Michel, the first-round draft pick coming off his second 100-yard performance in three weeks, rushing for two touchdowns in a dazzling 43-40 win over the once-unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium Sunday night. Of note, in his first five games with the Patriots (he was idle Week 1), Michel has rushed for 400 yards — seventh-most in the NFL. That’s only 38 fewer yards than Giants wunderkind rookie Saqon Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick who has just as many touchdowns (four) as the 31st pick in last spring’s NFL Draft.
It’s not exactly bold to consider any first-round pick a “find,” particularly one with the history Michel had at Georgia, where he rushed for more than 3,600 yards from 2014 to ’17. But Michel was also a guy who had sort of fallen off the radar heading into the beginning of the season. Despite the cost, nobody really knew what to expect from him because the entire 2018 draft class has turned out to be an injury ward, coupled with the fact that…well, we don’t really have enough time to get into Bill Belichick’s debatable draft strategies of late.
But, and, mind you, this is the first and only time — perhaps — that I will mention any reference to a current fantasy football team on my docket, but the point is warranted.
In a keeper league where I decided against holding onto anybody, Barkley was my first pick back in early September, No. 2 overall.
I picked up Michel in the 10th round, 119th overall.
Indeed, the hype building around Michel was slow, thanks to a knee injury that kept him hobbled for much of training camp and the preseason. By the time he hit the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the stink of spending a first-round draft pick on a running back had started to percolate.
By the time he only managed 50 yards in an all-around debacle against the Detroit Lions, certain sports yakkers didn’t further question the selection as much as they did completely bury the rookie. The Sports Hub’s Tony Massarotti was at the forefront with his pitchfork, bellowing that Michel’s football characteristics are likened to the deep inhales and exhales you’re asked to make at your annual checkup.
Michel responded to the criticism by putting up a 112-yard effort in the Patriots’ win against the Miami Dolphins, a game that included his first touchdown. Inevitably, Patriots responded to the backlash with their characteristic genteelness.
To date though, Massarotti still hasn’t given a mea culpa.
In his defense, you know who one of the last Patriots running backs to put up 400 yards over his first five games with the team was?
Mr. Jonas Gray.
All right, so Gray had 412 yards over his first eight games with the Patriots in 2014, highlighted, of course, by his flash in the pan night against the Indianapolis Colts, against whom he rushed for 201 yards and a quartet of touchdowns. After that evening, Gray had 20 more attempts on the season for 80 yards. He rushed four times in the Deflategate playoff game against those same Colts. He ran for four yards.
Still, what Michel managed to do Sunday night was more than deliver fantasy numbers (hey, hey!) to the astute owners who drafted him. His conversion on third-and-one late in the game was a pivotal moment during the final drive that ultimately allowed Stephen Gostkowski to kick the winning field goal. Twice he made strong punches at the end zone, a spot in which he didn’t exactly look comfortable a few weeks back.
What he managed to do Sunday night was far more impressive than anything he managed over the last two weekends of success, and, at least according to his coach, was an important reason why the Patriots were able to enact a little revenge on the beating the Chiefs gave them in the same building last season.
“Sometimes your game comes down to a yard, being able to get it or defend it,” Belichick said. “Last year, that was really one of the big differences in the game. We were 0-4 in short-yardage offensively. We made a big emphasis on that.”
Gone is Jeremy Hill. Gone is Burkhead. Gone are Mike Gillislee and Ralph Webb.
Instead, Michel has burst onto the scene as a running back with great potential. You could say he’s been just as good as Barkley, who may be the league’s rookie of the year.
But he’s also still looking up at Gray on the list of all-time Patriot rushing yards, which goes some way in suggesting the Patriots don’t exactly have Todd Gurley on their hands yet.
Twelve yards to go until he matches Gray. There should be a ceremony.
We can cool it on the other comparisons — warranted or unjustified — for the foreseeable future though. Sony Michel doesn’t compare to a Dyson, despite that that’s the hill some will insist dying upon, but it’s hard to argue that we really know anymore definitively than that.
Now, who else was smart enough to latch onto James Conner?