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Parente: Pats’ Rushing Tandem Breaks Through at Perfect Time

Friday, January 03, 2014


Stevan Ridley (Photo: JDN, Flickr)

We’re not exactly working with Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne, “Thunder & Lightning” as the New York Giants referred to them in the early 2000s, but the New England Patriots appear to have stumbled upon the solution to their recent playoff futility.

Running backs LeGarrette Blount, undrafted in 2010 and essentially cast off by the Buccaneers on draft day in April, and Stevan Ridley, a former third-round pick only one season removed from the fourth best rushing performance in franchise history, could be the 1-2 punch conventional football wisdom suggests is necessary to succeed in the playoffs.

Blount rushed for 189 yards and two touchdowns and finished with 334 all-purpose yards as the Patriots beat the Bills, 34-20, in Week 17 to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC, an encouraging finish to a regular season riddled with injuries and inconsistency from Day 1. The Patriots rarely had all of their weapons on the field at the same time this year, and they won’t have them in the playoffs either now that tight end Rob Gronkowski is out with a knee injury, but Blount’s late-season surge (he also rushed for 76 yards and scored twice in a Week 16 win at Baltimore) might be a preview of what’s to come in the postseason as New England continues to adjust to life without its most important weapon besides Tom Brady.

A highly-effective pair

Even with Ridley fumbling in three consecutive games and getting benched in mid-October, few teams had as good a 1-2 punch as New England did in 2013; the Patriots were one of only two teams with two running backs to finish with 700 or more rushing yards during the regular season. Ridley rushed for a team-high 773 yards and scored seven touchdowns while Blount posted nearly identical numbers with seven touchdowns and 772 yards, alarming symmetry, even if by accident. The other team to accomplish this feat was Buffalo, which boasted the league’s best tandem in C.J. Spiller (201 carries, 927 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Fred Jackson (207-896-9). The Jets and Bengals were on the precipice with Chris Ivory (833) and Bilal Powell (697) combining for 1,530 rushing yards in New York and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (756) and Giovani Bernard (695) rushing for a combined 1,451 yards in Cincinnati.

Not since 2006 when Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney finished with a near identical number of carries and yards (199 and 812, and 175 and 745, respectively) have the Patriots had this much symmetry in their running game. Incidentally, they’re a pedestrian 5-5 in the playoffs since Dillon retired the following season, including two Super Bowl losses and a pair of one-and-dones.

No one will ever confuse Blount or Ridley with Dillon, but you could make the case that this year’s tandem is similar in stature and production to that of the ’06 Dillon and Maroney, or, better yet, the 2003 duo of Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk; Smith rushed for a team-high 642 yards that year on 182 carries, a shade higher than Faulk’s 638 yards on 178 rushes. The team finished 14-2 and won its second Super Bowl in three years.

Does rushing still matter?

Should Blount and Ridley turn into the new Smith and Faulk, will their production be enough to reverse the Patriots’ recent playoff misfortunes?

There are two theories at play regarding success in postseason football, and they coincidentally butt heads on a yearly basis, the first being the idea that you need to run the ball effectively in cold weather to brave the elements, and the other being the widely popular theory that this is now a quarterback league where the rules and regulations heavily favor teams with a prolific passing game, rendering the running game obsolete.

Since the NFL began “reemphasizing” the five-yard no-chuck rule in 2004, which prohibits defensive backs from impeding a receiver’s progress beyond five yards past the line of scrimmage, passing numbers have skyrocketed; the single-season touchdown record, held by Dan Marino for 20 years, has been broken three times in the past nine seasons – twice by Peyton Manning. Teams have trended away from drafting big, physical defenders and have instead utilized smaller, faster defensive backs and linebackers to build their foundation. The transition from physical to finesse has resulted in high-voltage teams such as the 2009 New Orleans Saints (No. 1 offensively, but 20th in overall defense) winning Super Bowls, a seismic shift from the pre-chuck rule days when the Patriots made their living stomping out teams built exclusively for indoor football (see: Super Bowl XXXVI).

When Dillon retired, New England’s offensive philosophy changed dramatically. They acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker and finished 2007 a perfect 16-0, shattering every offensive record along the way, including a then-league record 589 points, but lost in the Super Bowl to the underdog Giants. Over the next five years, they scored 400 or more points each time – a remarkable feat for a franchise that had never scored 400 or more in back-to-back seasons until ’07 and ’08 – including three consecutive seasons with 500 or more and yet still continued to fail in the postseason during a time in which increased offensive productivity was supposed to lead to more playoff success.

The lesson in all this is despite having a quarterback as good as, if not better than, each of the quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl since the chuck rule was reemphasized, history shows the Patriots have never succeeded solely on the strength of Brady’s golden arm. The decline in defense has played a factor, too, but if you can’t keep teams out of the end zone the only logical solution is to run the ball, control the clock and keep the opposing offense on the sideline.

Balance is the key

What worked for Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers hasn’t worked for Brady. The Patriots are 5-5 in the playoffs when Brady attempts 40 or more passes. Conversely, Brady only attempted 40 or more passes three times in nine games – all wins – during each of New England’s three championship seasons. This is still a passing league, but if the Patriots can display the balance they haven’t show in recent postseasons, it can only make them more dangerous in the long run.

There’s no hard-hitting defense on the other side of the ball this season like, say, last year’s Baltimore Ravens or the upset-minded Giants of ’07, both of whom hit first and never got hit in return. There’s no thunder or lightning. The Patriots will have to provide their own this year. History says it works.


Related Slideshow: 13 Biggest Sports Stories in RI in 2013

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#13 A New Look Big East

The Providence-based Big East Conference officially broke up in 2013 after an agreement was reached with the "Catholic 7" basketball-centric schools.

The agreement between the Big East and the Catholic 7 -- Providence, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova -- allowed those schools to keep the Big East name and the right to play their basketball post-season tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. They also added three new teams -- Butler, Xavier, and Creighton -- making for a 10-team league.

The remaining (original) Big East schools; such as Connecticut, Louisville, Cincinnati, and others, now play in the renamed American Athletic Conference.

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#12 Tim Tebow

Much of New England scratched their heads when the Patriots signed Tim Tebow in June. Despite questions over the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback's viability as a starter in the NFL, the signing of Tebow was big news in Foxboro ahead of training camp.

Tebow's tenure in New England didn't last very long, as the former Florida Gator failed to make the Patriots' final cut.

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#11 PC Friar Arrested

GoLocalProv broke news that Ladontae Henton of the Providence College men's basketball team was arrested on domestic violence charges in May.

The 6'6" forward from Lansing, MI, is considered to be a potential future first-round NBA draft pick.

Henton has remained a Friar for 2013-14, putting up big numbers (12.3 PPG and 7.6 RPG) so far this season.

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#10 The Brothers Murphy

Erik, Alex, and Tomas Murphy; three Rhode Island brothers, made big basketball news in 2013.

First, Erik, the eldest brother, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the 49th pick of the 2013 NBA Draft out of Florida.

Next, GoLocal broke the news that Alex Murphy had officially transferred from Duke, following his brother's path, and headed to Gainesville to play under Billy Donovan at Florida.

Then, GoLocal's Jack Andrade reported that the youngest Murphy, Tomas, a 6'8" freshman at Prout, had already been offered D1 scholarships by Maryland, Boston College, Florida, URI, PC, and Bryant.

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#9 Demetrius Andrade

In November, Providence boxer Demetrius "Boo Boo" Andrade became the latest world champion on the New England sports scene.

Andrade stayed undefeated and won his first world title defeating Vanes Martirosyan at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, TX by split decision to claim the vacant WBO junior middleweight title.

The official call was a split decision for Andrade, a former US Olympian, who won on scores of 117-110, 114-113, and 112-115.

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#8 Bryant Hires Skinner

Al Skinner returned to the New England coaching scene in 2013-14, taking the job as Assistant Coach of the Bryant Bulldogs basketball team under Tim O'Shea.

Skinner, the former head coach at URI and Boston College, was the National Coach of the Year in 2001. He has a record of 385-291 in 22 seasons as a head coach.

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#7 Jay Elliot Arrest

Jay Elliot, the founder and top coach of the Rhode Island Hawks was arrested on child porn charges in November, sending shock waves through the regional basketball scene.

Elliot, one of New England's best known AAU coaches has been a major player in the development of top college bound basketball talent for ten years in New England.

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#6 Ricky Ledo

In April, GoLocal's John Rooke broke the news that Providence College freshman, Ricky Ledo would leave the Friars for the NBA Draft without ever playing a single NCAA game. 

That decision has not yet proven to be a great choice for the 6'6" shooter, as his name was not called until the middle of the second round of the draft

Ledo was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks, traded to Philadelphia, then to the Dallas Mavericks. 

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#5 Bryant Bulldogs

In just their first year of NCAA Division I eligibility, the Bryant Bulldogs made the postseason in both basketball and baseball.

The basketball squad posted a record of 19-11, and reached the College Basketball Invitational.  The ride did not last long though, as they lost their first round game to Richmond 76-71.

The Bulldog baseball team won the NEC Conference tournament in 2013, securing their spot in the NCAA Baseball Championship Tournament.  They faced the perennial powerhouse Arkansas, where they stole one game, before ultimately falling to the Razorbacks

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#4 One Fine Day

October 13, 2013 was a great day in New England Sports history, in fact, it is possibly one of the best ever.

First, the New England Patriots defeated the New Orleans Saints 30-27 after Tom Brady completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins with 5 seconds remaining in the game.

Then the Red Sox, down by five runs to Detroit in Game 2 of the ALCS, staged an unlikely comeback -- featuring a David Ortiz grand slam -- to win the game and making the series even at 1-1. The Red Sox went on to win the World Series.

Read GoLocal's list of the Ten Greatest Days in New England Sports history here .

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#3 PC's Recruiting Class

The Ed Cooley era at PC has been impressive thus far, but not only for his on-court accomplishments.

Cooley has also proven to be quite an effective recruiter, and in 2013, built one of the nation's best classes.

This year, Cooley brought in three Top-100 recruits; Jalen Lindsey, a 6’7 small forward from Franklin, TN; Ben Bentil, a 6'8" forward from Delaware; and the 7'1" center Pashcal Chukwu, widely considered to be among best defensive big men in the nation.  

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#2 Aaron Hernandez

The Patriots knew that they would potentially need to deal with character issues when they drafted Aaron Hernandez in 2010.

In 2013, those issues came to the forefront in a large way when their star tight end was arrested and charged with the murder of Odin Lloyd in June. Hernandez is currently awaiting trial from the Bristol County House of Corrections.

If it wasn't bad enough for Hernandez, things got worse.  Later in June, authorities began to investigate Hernandez' involvement in a 2012 double homicide in South Boston.

The GoLocal Sports Team will surely provide further news on these cases in 2014. 

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#1 Marathon Bombing

The biggest sports story in New England of 2013 transcended athletics, touching the lives of our local communities and much of the world.

On Monday, April 15 -- Patriots Day in the Bay State -- an otherwise normal celebratory day in Boston turned tragic just before 3:00 PM.  Just feet away from the finish line for the Boston Marathon, two explosions from homemade bombs went off, killing three spectators, and injuring more than two hundred.

The tragedy gripped the entire nation; sparking emotions ranging from fear to outrage. But from the wreckage emerged evidence of New England's resilience. From the impassioned speech at Fenway by David Ortiz, and Rene Rancourt's touching rendition of the National Anthem at the TD Garden, to the outpouring of support through the One Fund Boston, and the individual heroes like Carlos Arredondo and Joe Andruzzi (along with many, many others); New Englanders and Americans responded in an enormous way. 

Read more of GoLocal's Coverage of the bombings here.


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