Re: Running the Ball is Key to Tom's Legacy
posted at 1/13/2014 1:14 PM EST
Championship teams know who they are and how they want to win. They forge an identity and know where to turn when big plays need to be made. On Saturday night in Foxboro, the Patriots formally announced their new identity, and it's one we haven't seen in a while: They are a physical football team.
LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots turned away the Colts with a run-oriented offense that came about by necessity. (AP)
Forget about the multifaceted tight end explosions. Forget about the deep ball. Forget about using the short passing game to set up the run. Forget about the dizzying array of screens and pick passes. They still have all those options in their back pocket. They do, after all, employ one of the top passers in NFL history. But this team plays best when it eschews the high-flying attack for a simple, old-school style.
You saw hints of the development in the first game of the preseason. Remember the very first drive of the preseason? The Pats ran it six straight times for 80 yards and a Stevan Ridley touchdown. They blew Philadelphia off the ball. It was a dominant performance, and you could see how excited the players were. You could hear it when you talked to them the next week. They were building the early foundation as a running team.
Of course, identity changes don't happen overnight.
They needed nearly every one of 52 passes to beat Buffalo in Week 1 of the regular season, and there were comebacks along the way that your average plodder simply could not win. And when Rob Gronkowski's cameo temporarily gave Brady his most dynamic weapon, they obviously were tempted to open up things. But, in a strange way, the Gronkowski injury may have helped this team find itself.
Are the Patriots a better team with Gronkowski? Probably. He's one of the top players in the NFL and the best receiver on their team. He's a force on third downs and an otherworldly option in the red area (as Bill Belichick would say). There is no better combination run blocker/pass receiver in the league.
But he is also a temptation. He gives a pass-happy offensive coordinator with a Hall of Fame quarterback an excuse to throw the ball more often than necessary. And while I'd prefer that the Pats have that option available to them, especially if they get into a shootout, they have had their most convincing victories when they force-feed the running game right from the opening snap.
I know what you're thinking: Why would you willingly take the ball away from Tom Brady and entrust a known fumbler and an undrafted running back who was cast aside by Tampa to move the ball? Good question. But I think there are a few answers.
First, it isn't about LeGarrette Blount or Stevan Ridley nor is it about Shane Vereen or even Brandon Bolden. It's about the five horses in front of them. With Gronkowski absent, Logan Mankins is the best player on this offense not named Brady. Quite frankly, his four counterparts probably all rank in the top six. I believe in most cases the offensive line and other blockers are responsible for 70 percent of the running game, the system for another 10 percent and the running back for maybe 20 percent. This group is effective.
Second, I think Brady is at his best when he has a strong running game. Like all quarterbacks, he throws better against fewer defensive backs, and that running game forces teams to commit numbers in the box. Furthermore, the real threat of a handoff allows him to use play action as more than a meaningless gesture. One of the things that makes Brady great is his ball handling skill -- that element is lost when teams know he is passing nearly every down. He also is so adept at converting third downs with manageable distances. Which quarterback in the league would you prefer to Brady on third-and-3?
A strong commitment to the running game also wears down a defense. It's exhausting to shed blocks. This weekend saw plenty of evidence to prove the old adage that if you keep running it, eventually you'll pop a long run. Blount rumbled for a 73-yard touchdown. Marshawn Lynch had a 31-yard score to seal Seattle's win. Frank Gore's 39-yard run set up the final score for San Francisco. All three runs came in the fourth quarter. All three teams ran the ball more than they threw it. All three runs essentially iced the game. You see where I'm going here?
There are plenty of reasons to commit to the run, even with Tom Brady on your team. And yes, the recent inclement weather has added an important one. But the great thing about this assumed identity is that if it goes awry, the Pats aren't bound to it. You saw San Diego attempt to impose its will on Denver on Sunday. When that failed, the Chargers eventually turned to the passing game, but it was too little and too late. But the Patriots not only have experience this year with the late comeback, they have Tom Brady ready to lead one.
The 2013 Patriots may not win the Super Bowl. Heck, they might not even beat Denver. They have, after all, been hit as hard by the injury bug as any contending team I can remember, and they went through a significant change in personnel before the season even began. But as they have conquered their challenges, they have developed their own personality. They are a young defense, a deep roster and a team that has dealt with adversity. But they are a physical offense. A team that can punish you on the ground. And that identity should serve them well.