Bell cow. Feature back. Lead dog. No matter what you call them, at one time or another over the last 13 years, Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Stevan Ridley all established themselves as the No. 1 running back with the Patriots. While none of them -- other than Dillon -- were what you might classify as the old-school big back, they all provided substance for the Patriots game and did their part when it came to taking pressure off Tom Brady and the New England passing game.
But through three games this season -- and because of various circumstances -- the Patriots have opted to go with a running back by committee. The group of Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, Shane Vereen and Leon Washington have combined to help provide an occasional boost for a New England passing game that's still in the process of coming together. With each back offering a little something different, it's provided Bill Belichick with some variety when it comes to game-planning.
"They have, I’d say, a little different skill sets," Belichick when asked about his backs. "I don’t know that each of them can do all the things that the other ones can do, but they have strengths of their own that we can or try to highlight. But certainly having a good, fresh guy in there that we’re confident in that can be productive for us is a good situation.
"I think no matter which guy is in there, we have a lot of confidence," Belichick added. "They all can be productive and I think their skill sets are a little bit different from each other’s, but they’re productive with the ball in their hands. They can run, break tackles and gain yardage in the running game and in the passing game."
Through three games, three different backs have led the team in rushing. Vereen had 101 yards in Week 1 against the Bills, while Ridley had a team-high 40 yards on the ground in Week 2 against the Jets, and Blount finished with 65 this past Sunday against the Bucs. And while Ridley is the closest thing the group has to a committee chairman, the backs have produced in different ways. Despite some recent struggles, Ridley is more of the traditional, between-the-tackles guy, while Blount had the chance to show that he still has something in the tank Sunday when he helped grind down the Bucs in the fourth quarter, accounting for 56 of the 60 yards during a fourth-quarter drive that helped bleed the clock and draw comparisons to Dillon in his prime. Bolden and Vereen are multidimensional backs who can produce both in the running and passing game (both had more than 70 catches as collegians). And while he's been sidelined for the bulk of the 2013 to this point, Washington can offer value as a changeup back who can offer a little of both.
"I think they’ve got some guys that have great skill sets at the running back position," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "They’ve done a good job of keeping those guys fresh and putting guys in roles that they can be successful in. You know Stevan Ridley … they basically have almost the same skill sets in my mind. They’re all in the 220-plus range except for Leon Washington, who I consider a change-of-pace back. But, when you start talking about Ridley, LeGarette Blount and Bolden, they are very similar in terms of their skill set. They are powerful runners, I think they are north and south runners, and they’ve done a great job."
There's been no definitive way to measure the pluses and minuses of a running back by committee (RBBC). Much of it depends on the quarterback -- if you are above average at any of a variety of skill positions like wide receiver or tight end, a good offense can get away with relying on one back to provide the bulk of the yards on the ground. It is worth noting that of the last eight Super Bowl champions, four of the teams (2011 and 2007 Giants, 2009 Saints and 2005 Steelers) had at least three backs finish the year with at least 40 carries. While that isn't a textbook definition of RBBC, it's an indication that even in this pass-heavy era, if you don't have an elite quarterback who can help you pass your way to a title, you still have to have some quality depth and multiple options at running back if you want to win.
It remains to be seen just how much of this group is going to be relied on going forward -- the New England offense will change when Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are on the field at the same time. But to this point, the running game has played a sizable role. Through three games, the Patriots are averaging 4.0 yards per carry -- the mark that usually connotes consistency in the running game. And while some of that is skewed because of the performance of Vereen in the season opener against the Bills (7.2 yards on 14 carries) and Bolden last week (he had a 46-yard gain that contributed to his three-carry, 51-yard performance), that YPC number is good for 14th in the league. Not quite elite, but good considering the fact that the New England passing game remains a work in progress.
"All our backs practice and take a lot of reps, both in the running game, the passing game, some of the situational football portions that we practice, third down, red zone, those kind of things," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "They all get an opportunity to go in there and rep, and they’re all ready to play. I think anybody that’s earned the right to be out there with their performance and what they’ve done in practice and throughout the course of the season, we usually put them out there and give them an opportunity to make an impact on Sunday."
The Patriots had one of their most successful seasons rushing the football last year when they finished with 523 carries and 2,184 yards (an average of 4.2 YPC). While New England was able to offer different options like Vereen and Danny Woodhead when it came to running the ball, it was due in large part to the work of Ridley as the feature back -- his 1,263 rushing yards was good enough to land him in the top 10 leaguewide and provide the Patriots with some real offensive balance.
This year it's different. When it comes to the Patriots and their history with RBBC, there was a brief moment in 2011 when Green-Ellis was among three running backs (with Woodhead and Ridley) who had at least 40 carries. But for the most part, history tells us that the Patriots have busted it out when there have been extraordinary offensive circumstances, and they've been pressed to offer something different. The last time the Patriots had a true RBBC was in 2008, when five players finished the year with at least 200 yards rushing and four of the backs had at least 40 carries, but no one topped the 750-yard mark -- Sammy Morris (727 yards), Kevin Faulk (507 yards), LaMont Jordan (363 yards), Green-Ellis (275 yards) and quarterback Matt Cassel (270 yards) all contributed to a running game that finished with 2,278 rushing yards on 513 rushing attempts for an impressive 4.4 yards per carry. With Brady missing virtually the entire season, obviously, the circumstances were different than most. But it still proved that New England could engage in a group effort when it came to moving the ball on the ground.
At least for the short term -- that is, until Gronkowski and Amendola return to full strength -- the Patriots could come close to the collective effort of the 2008 running game, at least when it comes to getting as many people involved as possible. Ridley and Blount figure to be locks to reach at least 100 carries (Blount is on pace for 133 carries, while Ridley is on pace for 192). Meanwhile, because of his wrist injury, Vereen might struggle to hit 50, but with 14 at this point, it appears safe that he'll hit 40. Bolden figures to pick up some of Vereen's snaps, but both could easily hit 40 carries each on the season. That would leave the Patriots with four backs with at least 40 carries each. While it's debatable how close they'd get as a group to the 2,278 yards and 4.4 YPC the 2008 group reached (the New England running game is on pace for 1,963 rushing yards), it would equal that group in terms of overall participation.
The back who has been most affected by the decision to move to RBBC this year has been Ridley. He's the one who has had the most up-and-down season to this point. He was benched for the second half of the season opener against the Bills, and his playing time has dipped considerably over the course of the 2013 season. Through three games in 2012, he had 57 touches. But through three games this year, it's down to 37 touches.
Despite the drop, Ridley is OK with the idea.
"It's OK with me. If it's not, does that really matter with my coaches? Not at all," said Ridley. "For us, it's just plugging away whenever they call our numbers. Regardless of if it's Brandon, or Blount or me, as long as we're getting the job done, I can't really ask for much more. I mean, everyone wants to be that guy that gets all the carries. But at the end of the day it's not about that. It's about the team. So we're 3-0, we're running the ball well, our guys are doing a good job of stepping up when someone goes down and all we can do is keep plugging away.''
When talking about Ridley's production, it's important to note -- as we have done several times -- that Belichick has never had a back go for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons: The only two who came close were Dillion, who rushed for 1,635 yards in 2004 and followed that up with 735 yards on the ground in 2005, and Smith, who had 1,157 yards in 2001 and 982 yards in 2002, a two-year span of 2,139 rushing yards. (While Smith technically got closer at pulling off the back-to-back -- but for 18 yards -- Dillon's two-year total of 2,370 yards is the best two-year stretch for any back under Belichick.)
Despite his slow start, Ridley still has a shot at the 1,000-yard plateau. He has 121 rushing yards through the first three games of the season, an average of 40.3 yards per game. If he wants to hit 1,000, he'd have to average 67.6 yards over the last 13 games to hit 1,000, not out of the realm of possibility. Dillon's two-year mark of 2,370 might be attainable -- when you add his 1,263 from last year to his 121 this season, that's 1,384 yards, or 986 yards shy of Dillon. That would require an average of 76 yards per game.
Regardless of how all this affects Ridley this season, history has shown that RBBC is rarely sustainable over multiple seasons. Reliance on the single-back system for the majority of rushing yardage is still the norm when it comes to a traditional NFL offense, and given the way the New England roster is currently constituted, there's no reason to think the Patriots won't return to the old model, maybe as soon as a few weeks when Gronkowski and Amendola return. But as we saw in 2008, it can provide a surprisingly steady foundation for an offense in transition, and spark an offense that's in need of a boost.