By Dan Snapp
With the Asante Samuel impasse resolved, seemingly the final obstacle to a Patriots return trip to the Super Bowl has been removed. Now’s the time to plot the path.
So after an offseason rife with thrilling acquisition after thrilling acquisition at wide receiver, the plan must be clear: Air McDaniels ready for takeoff? We’d better hope not. The path of least resistance to Super Bowl XLII is on the ground.
Look, we’re not kidding ourselves here. With Tom Brady choosing targets from amongst Randy Moss, Donte’ Stallworth, Wes Welker, Ben Watson, et al, the Patriots are going to pass the ball a lot. A whole hell of a lot.
Instead, we’re striking a cry for balance, and even a run-first mentality, if possible. Hopefully, Friday night’s exhibition – in which the Pats ran the ball the first nine snaps from scrimmage – was an epiphany for the coaches, showing what Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and the offensive line can accomplish if just given the chance.
The Patriots are the early media favorites to win it all, with the only possible impediments being injuries (how great is it, and what does it say about this team, that hoping for an injury is the best that rivals have got?), an aging linebacker corps, and the off chance Moss will blow up somewhere along the way.
Moss we can’t do anything about, but with a contract year, the chance for a ring, and the Hall of Fame in the balance, it’s a good bet we won’t be hearing, “That’s just Randy being Randy.” And running the ball will go a long way toward alleviating the other concerns.
Tom Brady getting injured is a Pats fan’s worst nightmare, and if Josh McDaniels succumbs to the temptation for the offense to become Indy East, we’ll all be living that nightmare.
The same logic follows for the talented but long-in-the-tooth linebackers, forever the key to Bill Belichick’s 3-4 scheme. The addition of Adalius Thomas helps immensely, but the position is still thin after the first five. With a pass-heavy attack lengthening games, by November we’ll be counting Tedy Bruschi’s reps the same way they’re charting Brady’s throws now.
A good running game, giving Brady relief from pass rushers, eating time off the clock to give the defense a rest, is the panacea to those fears. Moreover, history has shown that at some point in the season, they’re gonna need it.
John Elway had “Can’t win the big one” looming over his career before Terrell Davis’ monster seasons rewrote the script with two Super Bowl wins. Mike Martz foolishly, arrogantly turned his back on the run when it was being offered on a platter, and his Rams lost because of it. Just last year, the Colts and Peyton Manning shunned their usual pad-the-stats approach, and a balanced attack produced a Lombardi Trophy.
With the evolution of the game into a more pass-driven affair, fans today have missed out on the joys of a great rushing attack. There’s so much that goes into it – scheme, timing, aggressiveness, and practice upon practice to iron it all out – that when it all comes together, it’s truly a thing of beauty.
The psychology, and mentality, of it is also something to behold. There’s an old story about a game in the mid-70s in which Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks wanted to test exactly what he had in Sam Cunningham running behind John Hannah and Leon Gray. Fairbanks called the same play all the way up the field until they scored. Imagine the utter helplessness of that defense, knowing exactly what was coming and still powerless to stop it.
The encouraging signs out of Foxboro, especially last Friday night, are that the run won’t be forgotten. The line is shifting its philosophy toward more zone-blocking techniques to utilize Maroney’s great burst into the second level of would-be tacklers, and the team replaced blocking workhorse Daniel Graham with tight end Kyle Brady, possibly his equal as a blocker.
John Molori, in this week’s Media Blitz, had a great quote from Cris Carter about how the two elements – passing and running – work in tandem, and Randy Moss’s role in it:
“In the simplest of terms, the Patriots are going to be able to run to the strong side because their opponents are going to have to commit the safety to Randy. Strong side running is a key to success in the NFL.”
Three yards and a cloud of comments.