Patriots

Dreaming of how great Patriots running back Rhamondre Stevenson can be

Now is the time to dream big on Stevenson and that open field of a future.

Rhamondre Stevenson loooks to have another standout performance against the Browns on Sunday. Jim Davis/Globe Staff


COMMENTARY

While Patriots quarterback Mac Jones has regressed in his sophomore season, their second-year running back has progressed so much that it’s not enough to acknowledge that getting Rhamondre Stevenson the football should be the focal point of the offensive game plan every week.

There’s something more to dream on here than merely anticipating what he might be capable of on any given Sunday. Stevenson is such a vicious and electrifying runner, and so improved in the intertwined roles of pass catcher and pass blocker, that anyone with a shred of optimism cannot resist looking at the open field of his career and envisioning greatness ahead.

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Here I will offer the usual caveats, out of obligation more than actual immediate concern for the 24-year-old Stevenson, who has had more than 19 carries in just one game this season: Running backs take an unholy pounding, and injuries can lead to an erosion of skills if not an abrupt end. We know this. It’s happened time and time again, which is one reason why so few go in the first round of the draft anymore.

I see Marshawn Lynch when I watch Stevenson, all jolts and cuts and spins, his surges of power and kinetic energy sometimes resulting in defenders left with cleat marks on their jersey number — I’m thinking of the Jets’ Jordan Whitehead there, who got a great look at the afternoon sky after Stevenson trucked him on a 35-yard run Sunday. But the most common comparison seems to be the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, who is a much less dynamic player at 27 — young for a normal man, midlife for an NFL running back’s career — than he was at 24. Running back greatness is fleeting, and if you’re skeptical, did you know that Todd Gurley is just 28 years old?

Stevenson, who lasted to the fourth round in the 2021 draft, could be a workhorse. He’s listed at 6 feet and 227 pounds but looks and plays bigger. But Bill Belichick and the offensive coaching staff are being sensible with his usage. It’s the right thing to do, even as fun as it would be to see him carry the ball more.

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His career high in carries, 25, came in the Week 5 shutout of the Lions, and it wasn’t coincidental that he also ran for a career-best 161 yards. But that was the result of having only one active back on the roster after Damien Harris — a fine runner himself, but one whose presence in the backfield these days primarily leaves us anticipating Stevenson’s return — went down in the second quarter with a hamstring injury.

Eight games into his second season, Stevenson is proving he can handle any expectations the Patriots put on him.

He is proving to be indefatigable when defenses have keyed on him, gaining a hard-earned 76 yards and two touchdowns on 19 attempts in the win over the Browns.

He is proving to be such a reliable receiver, with seven catches — including a dazzling one-handed grab — and 72 receiving yards against the Jets to complement his 71 yards on the ground, that he may be the Patriots’ first true three-down back of the Belichick era.

And he is proving to be a closer, appearing to have his battery charged to 100 percent while running over, around, and through worn-down defenses late in those victories over the Browns and Jets.

Stevenson is 10th in the NFL in rushing with 558 yards, and just 17 yards out of a tie for fifth, despite having just 29 carries — for a productive 145 yards – through three games. In his two seasons, which total 20 regular-season games, he’s carried 247 times for 1,164 yards and 9 touchdowns, impressive numbers considering he only recently began receiving the larger portion of snaps in the job share with Harris.

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Now is the time to dream big on Stevenson and that open field of a future, so consider this: He’s already 32nd on the Patriots’ all-time rushing list — with 1 yard more than Vagas Ferguson, if you’re counting. And if we assume somewhat conservatively that Stevenson will double his rushing output this season in the remaining nine games, that additional 558 yards would bring him to a career total of 1,722, vaulting him to 23rd, ahead of the well-remembered likes of Ron Burton, Mack Herron, James White, and — a favorite here — Horace Ivory.

Oh, and there’s this, the dream-on-it part.

It would also put Stevenson about three excellent seasons from becoming the Patriots’ all-time leading rusher.

Premature to think about? Heck, yeah. Do we need to reiterate the punishment running backs endure again?

But also entirely plausible, given Stevenson’s youth, work ethic, relatively limited workload so far, and breathtaking talent.

I’ve got a Did-You-Know? that I bet you did not know: No current NFL franchise has a lower yardage total from its all-time leading rusher than the Patriots. That would be Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a historically important football player who ran for 5,453 yards as a Patriot from 1974-82. No. 2 on the list is Jim Nance, who gained 5,323 rushing yards from 1965-71. It’s a wild anomaly given all of the Patriots’ success, but it’s true: Their top two all-time rushers last played 40 and 51 years ago.

The only other franchise with an all-time leading rusher with fewer than 6,000 yards is the Buccaneers, with 1980s bruiser James Wilder at the top of their leaderboard (5,957).

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The Patriots have had four running backs who are the top leading rusher for other franchises: Fred Taylor (Jaguars); Steven Jackson (Rams, bet you didn’t know that one); Corey Dillon (Bengals); and — sigh — Curtis Martin (Jets). Martin, lured to the Jets by Bill Parcells after the 1997 season, is the finest running back this franchise has ever had. In 2004, Dillon had the best single season, running for 1,635 yards.

And still, ol’ Sam Bam remains the leading rusher, four decades after his final Patriots carry.

With good luck, good health, and a desire to keep doing exactly what he’s doing, Rhamondre Stevenson can be the one to finally catch him. It’s really not that far to run.

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