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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 2013

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#13. Worcester Baseball

Baseball has always held a very important place in the http://www.golocalworcester.com/news/can-yet-another-baseball-team-undo-worcesters-curse-of-the-tornadoes/">history of Worcester.

In 1863, the famous poem Casey at the Bat was written in Worcester by Ernest Thayer under the pen name “Phineas.”

In 1880, J. Lee Richmond of the Worcester Worcesters pitched the first perfect game in professional baseball history. 

However, there was a void of professional baseball in the city following the departure of the Worcester Tornadoes in 2012. 

That void ended in 2013, with the announcement by John Creeden, Jr. of Worcester's newest baseball team, the Worcester Bravehearts.   This new team hits the field in 2014, managed by former Tornadoes player Alex Trezza, in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. 

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#12. Patriots Fall Short

The Patriots made a great run toward the Super Bowl in January.  After going 12-4 in the regular season and earning a first round bye, the Pats walked past the defensive powerhouse Houston Texans 41-28 on their way to play the Baltimore Ravens for the AFC Championship.

Baltimore had just come off a tough double overtime victory at Denver a week earlier, so New England fans felt confident that they would be heading to New Orleans for their eighth Super Bowl.

However, at game time Baltimore's defense stepped-up behind their retiring captain, Ray Lewis, stunning the Patriots 28-13.  This would be the first ever home loss in an AFC Championship game for New England. 

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#11. HS State Champions

2013 brought several high school state titles to Central Massachusetts.

In the spring, there was a Central Mass sweep in softball as Milford (Division I), Grafton (Division II), and Assabet (Division III) all took home State Championships. 

In the fall, four Central Mass football teams reached State Super Bowls, and two of those teams came home as champions. The Doherty Highlanders won a battle with Dennis-Yarmouth 28-26 to claim the Division 4 title, and in Division 6, the Littleton Tigers won a 52-35 shootout over Cohasset.

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#10. Auburn's Tyler Beede

Tyler Beede, an Auburn native, had one of the most dominant pitching performances in all of Division I college baseball in 2013 at Vanderbilt University.

The 6'4” right-handed sophomore pitcher was heavily criticized for turning down a $2.5 million offer from the Toronto Blue Jays after being picked 21st overall in the 2011 MLB Draft. But now he is proving that he may have done the right thing in going to Vanderbilt.

Following the 2013 season, Beede was named Second Team All-American by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball.

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#9. 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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#8. 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 left 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--winning the game and making the series even at 1-1.

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

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#7. Red Sox Victory

After the train wreck season of 2012, expectations were tempered for the Red Sox in 2013.  They had dropped payroll, fired their manager, and the team's focus was on rebuilding for the future.

So when the Red Sox won their third World Series in ten years, the celebrations in New England were incredible. This was evidenced by the enormous number of people who turned out for the victory parade through Boston's streets in November.

See GoLocal's parade coverage here.  

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#6. Shamrock Shakeup

When the Celtics brought in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to play along with Paul Pierce under Doc Rivers, the team and fans knew that the window to win was small. 

They won a title in their first year together, and made several more runs in subsequent seasons, but in summer of 2013, it was clear that the window had closed.  

Doc Rivers walked away, replaced by first-year coach Brad Stevens; and Kevin Garnett was traded, along with Paul Pierce, to Brooklyn for draft picks and role players. 

While the short-term prognosis for the Celtics is not promising, most agree that these moves in 2013 will be the building blocks for a bright future at the Garden. 

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#5. Carter-Williams

In February, GoLocal's John Barone broke the news that Hamilton native, and Syracuse Orange guard, Michael Carter-Williams would declare for the 2013 NBA draft after his sophomore season.

Carter-Williams, a 2011 McDonald’s All-American at St. Andrews in Rhode Island, was drafted 11th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. He is currently having himself quite a rookie year, with 17.6 point and 7.8 assist per game averages.

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#4. Bob Lobel

For more than three decades, Bob Lobel was part of the telecast at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  And this year, after the tragic attacks that occurred at that site, Lobel shared his memories of the event, and how the bombings affected him in one of the best-written and well-read articles that GoLocal had the privilege of publishing in 2013.

Read the article here

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#3. Algonquin Lip-Dubbing

The athletes at Northborough's Algonquin Regional High School became internet celebrities in 2013 after their YouTube video went viral.

The video featured dozens of students performing a lip-dub  of a song by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen while backpedaling through the school.

The video was part of a marketing class project, and had more than 18,000 hits within 48 hours of being published.

Watch the amazing video here.

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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 Bombings

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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