Running to a Standstill

Regardless of the problems on both sides of the ball that the New England Patriots faced last year, one player's performance was a microcosm of the disappointing season.<br><br> Antowain Smith's inability to execute in the ground game severely disrupted the ball-control offense of head coach Bill Belichick.

In fact, Smith has never been known as a clock-eater. He's never proven to be any more than an average running back who takes advantage of good blocking. Entering his seventh season as a pro, he's averaged 4 or more yards a carry only once, and that was his rookie season as a Buffalo Bill. In what many consider his finest season as a pro, Smith hit 4 yards a carry right on the nail.

What was even more detrimental than the yards per carry average was Smith's dramatic drop-off in touchdowns. He ran for 12 touchdowns in 2001, more than his combined totals from 1999 and 2000, but the following season his production dropped by 50% to six rushing touchdowns.

The disappointing stats don't end there. Smith ran for over 100 yards only once last season, whereas he hit the century mark 4 times in the Super Bowl campaign.

Antowain Smith's Career Rushing Stats

2001New England161528711574.04412
2002New England16152529823.942t6
TOTAL7 NFL Seasons8958129950713.95944

All of this brings back the question of why the Patriots neglected to draft Larry Johnson or Willis McGahee. It's obvious that Belichick saw enough in 2001 to hand the keys of the running game to Smith once again.

Perhaps the plan is that the emergence of a 3rd down back will take some of the heat off Smith. Last season, Kevin Faulk began to appear as that change of pace back that other NFL teams use to great advantage.

Still, it's not all salt and vinegar for the running back. Smith's proven durable in his two seasons as a Patriot, playing in every game and starting all but 2 of 32 regular season matches. He only fumbled twice last season, losing one.

That doesn't negate the fact that the Patriots still lack the elusive franchise running back, a luxury held by their competition in the AFC East. The Dolphins have Ricky Williams; the Jets have Curtis Martin; the Bills have two candidates in Travis Henry and Willis McGahee; yet no one can safely assume any longer that the Patriots have a candidate in Antowain Smith.

Should Smith once again struggle out of the starting gate, the inability to put together two consistent seasons coupled with his age will force the Patriots to draft a franchise running back next season. And the decision to not draft Larry Johnson or Willis McGahee may be second guessed.

John Biles

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