New England Patriots: It's Time To Draft a Power Running Back

Ken HowesCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2011

Corey Dillon was the last full-time power back for the Patriots
Corey Dillon was the last full-time power back for the PatriotsStephen Dunn/Getty Images

New England is pretty much like any other place to play football until Thanksgiving. Then it changes. Frontal systems begin running up the coast, the counterclockwise rotation of lows pulling nor'easter winds in from the Atlantic. If the temperature is still above freezing, the rains are torrential; if it is below, the blizzards begin. Foxboro becomes a very bad place to visit.

The Patriots' record in the snow—unbeaten in the snow since Bill Belichick became the coach—is well-documented. The soaked or snow-covered surface eliminates any speed advantage that teams built for southern cities or domed stadiums might have had. Instead, there is a premium on power. On such a field, the team likely to win is the one whose lines push the other team around.

Part of that game is having a runner as big as the linebackers who are supposed to tackle him. The Patriots have usually had that kind of back. In the 1960s, that big back was Jim Nance, who was not only as big as the linebackers; he was as big as some of the defensive linemen.

He was followed in the 1970s by Sam Cunningham, in the 1980s by Craig James, in the 1990s by Leonard Russel, and in the 2000s by Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon. Breakaway speed—which most of these men also had—was a bonus.

Curtis Martin is the exception that proves the rule. He is the only smaller back to have significant success in New England without being paired with a big back.

Carl Garrett was successful in New England only as long as Jim Nance was also there. Mack Herron had his success paired with Sam Cunningham. Tony Collins did well when paired with Craig James. Dave Meggett, Kevin Faulk and Danny Woodhead did well being used only in specialized situations, with a limited number of carries.

Part of the benefit of a real power back is that when he is on the field, the whole defense has to be aware of him and must take seriously the quarterback's movement to hand off to him. If the whole defense does not close on a Jim Nance or a Corey Dillon, he will smash through the line and be off to the races. The play-action fake and the draw play become the quarterback's best friends.

When the quarterback appears to be handing off to the power back, the whole defense closes on that back. Even then, if the ball really went to the runner, the pile is likely to move a couple of yards before the runner is finally brought down.

If, however, the quarterback has just been faking—if he has kept the ball, the defensive linemen and linebackers have been taken out of their pass rush moves. The quarterback can sit there, play a couple of hands of bridge and drink a cup of coffee, and then throw the ball.

The implications of that for a quarterback of the quality of Tom Brady are enormous. Brady, with time to throw, can pick apart even the best-constructed defenses. The greatest advantage of the big back, however, is when the field becomes slow and temperatures are freezing the hands of wide receivers.

That is when the big back can pound the ball between the tackles, as tacklers slide backward on the wet or icy field. People remember the "snow plow" game in 1982. An inmate on work-release drove a snow plow out onto the field during a time out and cleared the ground for the Patriots' kicker, who then kicked the winning field goal.

What they forget is how the Patriots stayed in that game against a Dolphins team that was on its way to the Super Bowl. The Pats' halfback, Tony Collins, carried 7 times for 18 yards that day. Steve Grogan, the Pats' quarterback, threw only five passes, completing two. But the Pats' fullbacks, Mark van Eeghen and Mosi Tatupu, slammed into the line again and again in the snow, carrying 35 times for 181 yards.

Under ordinary circumstances, that Patriots team, full of youngsters on a defense that was rebuilding, would have had no chance against the Dolphins. It was the big backs, in the snow, that ground the Dolphins down and put the Patriots in position to win the game with that field goal.

The present Patriots team has no real power running threat. The two power runners on the squad, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor, are at the end of their careers, well into their 30s.

Morris has become a situational back who comes in for short-yardage plays, while Taylor has become brittle, missing more games with injury than he plays. When the present Patriots backs go into the line, defenses do not pull away their pass rushers until they are quite certain that Tom Brady no longer has the ball.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead will not run over a lone tackler trying to close a hole. The present draft is not deep in big backs. Mikell LeShoure of Illinois appears to be the best of that lot. 

The other possibility is to look at fullbacks. There have been fullbacks in recent years who, when pressed into duty on the back, instead of the front, of the I, have come through marvelously. Peyton Hillis is probably the best recent example. The Pats' own Sammy Morris is of that breed, but is now just too old. There has to be a new big banger carrying the rock in Foxboro.