A moment can live on in infamy.
One punch was all it took for running back LeGarrette Blount, then with the Oregon Ducks. It seemed like a career flushed down the drain when he struck Boise State linebacker Byron Hout after a frustrating loss to open the 2009 season. Blount's season ended, and a pall fell over his career.
Blount would go undrafted, signed by the Tennessee Titans. Another fisticuff kerfuffle in training camp likely sealed his fate with then-head coach Jeff Fisher, who cut Blount in favor of Javon Ringer in a hindsight special.
Tennessee's loss was Tampa Bay's gain, as the Buccaneers stumbled upon a 1,000-yard rookie rusher when Blount took over the starting job in 2010. Of course, it wouldn't last. The surprising rookie year gave way to a disappointing sophomore season punctuated by an alleged assault of a fan.
Then totalitarian head coach Greg Schiano took over in Tampa, and Blount's days were numbered.
The big running back fell out of favor with Schiano and the Buccaneers, losing his job to rookie Doug Martin in 2012 and altogether falling out of the team's plans. He was an afterthought when the Patriots traded speedster Jeff Demps to the Buccaneers for Blount and a seventh-round pick.
But what does all this have to do with his impending free agency? Why, everything of course.
As good as Blount has been at times, it seems he is destined to carry the burden of his past along with those 247 pounds on his 6'0" frame. No matter how good he might have been last season, teams might be wary of giving Blount and his checkered past a big contract.
Conventional wisdom said Blount would be a casualty of the roster cutdown last offseason after the New England Patriots traded for him. Sometimes conventional wisdom is no match for head coach Bill Belichick. Yet here he stands, having scored four touchdowns in a playoff game and looking to cash in.
LeGarrette Blount is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 2014. In the playoffs. There's hope yet for an Anthony Randolph cover in 2015.— alex (@steven_lebron) January 16, 2014
LeGarrette Blount's last three games: 64 carries for 431 yards and eight touchdowns. Average of 6.73 yards per carry, TD per eight carries.— Oliver Thomas (@OliverBThomas) January 12, 2014
How did Blount pull out of his career nosedive? By putting his head down and plowing forward, both literally and figuratively, per Sports On Earth's Leigh Montville.
Every coach on every one of those teams had tried to get him to lower his shoulders. As a big man, he was taller than most linebackers he met at and beyond the line of scrimmage. This meant they were coming at him from a better angle at the start. Then they bent and attacked him even lower. This worked against him instead of for him. He had tried to change his style, but habits are habits. He had run well enough to make the National Football League, hadn't he? He didn't try too hard.
The coaches with the Patriots changed that. They didn't ask. They made him try hard.
"They made me change," Brother Blount says. "I didn't have a choice."
His hard work paid off, and Blount closed out the 2013 season on a tear. It reversed a trend that threatened to wash him out of the league.
Belichick on Blount: "Look, you get what you earn, and he's earned everything he's got."— Mary Paoletti (@Mary_Paoletti) January 15, 2014
It's clear Blount's attitude and work ethic turned upfield after he was traded up north. Despite a crowded backfield that included some young, dynamic studs in Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and even Brandon Bolden, it was Blount who got the call as the Patriots opened up the playoffs.
Pro Football Reference
In a way, Blount's season mirrored Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's first year in Seattle. Like Blount, Lynch was a castoff, traded away by the Bills after disappointing in Buffalo. Lynch had decent production once he landed in Seattle, but one play changed the course of his career.
Beast Mode's seismic run for the ages helped propel the heavy-underdog Seahawks—that infamous group that made the playoffs at 7-9—to an improbable victory over the Saints.
But did you know he had four carries for two yards in the ensuing game? Like Lynch, Blount followed up his incredible performance against the Colts in the Divisional Round with a six-yard dud against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
The similarities end there, for the time being, aside from Blount's penchant for Beast-like gallops from time to time. Lynch was still under contract for the Seahawks for another year after his breakout playoff performance, giving him a chance to build on his success with a team headed toward its apotheosis.
The Patriots are the old guard, but the championship window is still cracked open. Tom Brady isn't quite the quarterback he once was, and it shows in New England's commitment to a strong running game last year.
Blount gushed over the roster's "hard, tough-nosed" vibe, saying: "A lot of guys in here are underdogs or undrafted guys—or not first-round guys—coming in and stepping up and doing things people didn't expect them to do. We've come out here and proved people wrong a bunch of times this year."
Should he stay or should he go?
Blount is teetering on the precipice of old age at running back. He will be 28 near the end of the 2014 season, and that is past the age where players at his position tend to start a downward trend in productivity.
However, correlation is not causation—Blount is certainly capable of defying the odds. Perhaps Fred Jackson—Lynch's replacement in Buffalo—serves as an example. The 32-year-old started his NFL career late, and he had his first 1,000-yard season at age 27.
While Blount topped 1,000 yards in his rookie year, there isn't much mileage on those wheels. There is merit in the youthfulness of Blount's legs—that is to say, he has just 608 career carries, including the playoffs.
|Year||Team||Snaps||PFF Rating||Att.||Yds||YPA||TD||Missed Tackles||YAC Per Attempt||Elusive Rating|
Pro Football Focus
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Blount was the 14th-best running back in the league, on limited snaps no less. He was also tied for fifth-best rushing average and seventh-best yards after contact per attempt at his position.
This might all seem like an anomaly had Blount not done it as a rookie.
Of course, Jackson has what Blount does not—pass-catching ability. That isn't to say Blount can't catch a pass, but he isn't exactly Darren Sproles out there.
The one-dimensional nature of Blount's NFL existence is going to hurt him in free agency, probably more than his past can at this point. When he gets it going, big things are possible. Just look at some of his biggest touchdown runs of the season.
Each of those runs has something in common—excellent blocking. In fact, the Patriots had the top run-blocking offensive line in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
There is, of course, great vision and good burst on Blount's part. Plenty of running backs have failed to take advantage of good blocking through the years. Blount is fast for a guy who weighs nearly 250 pounds, and he has good instincts as a runner.
He might not be Barry Sanders, but Blount isn't just a straight-line brute.
Then there is the Belichick Curse. Is it real? Much ado has been made over players and coaches—though mostly the latter—who have left the Patriot Way and gotten lost.
But that is unlikely to play a part in this decision. This could be Blount's last, best shot at a big contract, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him chase top dollar over anything. The Patriots might value his contributions, but they don't tend to overpay.
Despite his past, teams should be willing to throw money at Blount should he hit the open market. He might not command top dollar, but he could also be viewed as one of the top backs available.