No portion of the New England Patriots offense has been in greater flux over the last several seasons than its running game, as the team has struggled to find a consistent persona or performer in the backfield since pushing a worn-down Corey Dillon into retirement two seasons ago.
At the same time, the team quietly ran its way into position as the league’s sixth best rushing attack during 2008 after starting quarterback Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in the first week of the season.
Despite those positive results, the Patriots appear primed to show opposing teams an altogether new look in the running game in 2009.
After achieving only mixed results in bringing on board veterans including Sammy Morris and Lamont Jordan to play alongside homegrown talents such as Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis in recent years, the Pats have once again signed an established, but slightly uncertain commodity at running back, inking a deal with former Jacksonville Jaguar Fred Taylor.
Taylor is a player known almost as much for his fragility in many seasons as for his ability to break open games with long runs.
Unlike the last several seasons, when the Patriots have lacked a clear leader in the backfield as Morris, Jordan, Maroney and seemingly anyone else carrying the rock for the team has fallen prey to the trainer’s room or the surgeon’s scalpel, head coach Bill Belichick and his staff are hoping to feature Taylor as a primary facet of their strategy in 2009.
With Brady back on the field alongside All-Pro targets Randy Moss and Wes Welker, who will help to soften defensive fronts as teams try to prevent the Patriots from striking deep downfield, as they did frequently and successfully during their perfect regular season of 2007, Taylor could have one of the best opportunities of his career to make the most of the holes those weapons can help open up in front of him.
On the best teams Taylor played on in Jacksonville, where he remains the team’s all-time leading rusher, the running game was almost always the focus of opposing defenses who could throw everything in the book at the running back, save perhaps during the franchise’s first years when quarterback Mark Brunell was at the top of his game.
Playing behind Brady should also mean fewer runs between the tackles and more sweeps and outside pitches for Taylor, which could help reduce the wear and tear on the tailback’s oft-damaged body.
Taylor’s slashing style would also seem far better suited to compliment the single-back spread formations that the Patriots favor with Brady at the controls and as many receivers as possible on the field, than did the tactics of straight-ahead pounder Morris or backfield-dancer Maroney.
One area where Taylor will not likely factor as much as some of his counterparts will be in the passing game, where the Patriots love to employ scads of different screen plays and flare patterns.
The running back has only totaled close to 50 catches in a single season twice in his 10 year career, with both of those instances coming over five years ago. The free agent hasn't hauled in even half as many as that in a good few seasons.
However, the Patriots' third down specialist and longtime big play man Kevin Faulk is likely to be the primary target on most of those plays as he has been since the mid-1990s.
In his most recent seasons in Jacksonville, Taylor split the workload with the elusive Maurice Jones-Drew, who will now get his own chance to prove he’s durable and effective enough to serve as his team’s leading rusher.
With the number of miles on Taylor’s body, it could be the case that Belichick and company are also planning to split time amongst their formidable crew of ball carriers, which may also help spring the running back on a few of his trademark long distance jaunts.
As we’ve learned with other big-name free agent signings by the Patriots in recent years, there’s a chance that Fred Taylor might not even make it through training camp if he can’t establish a role as a consistent contributor or potential leader at his position on the team’s roster.
But if everything goes right for the Patriots and a healthy Taylor can lurk next to Brady waiting for the opportunity to surprise opposing defenses with a late hand off or pitch that allows him to get into open space and make people miss, the team might have finally found itself another running back who fits its overall style like a glove.