Running back runaround in New England

To date, most of New England's off-season moves have focused on improving a beleaguered defense. The Patriots did manage to put up plenty of points in 2002, but they had trouble controlling the ball on the ground. Instead, the Pats relied on a short passing game that didn't always achieve its intended results.

During the Super Bowl run in 2001, the New England Patriots ran the ball much more than they did in 2002, a year which they failed to make the playoffs. The Pats were 12th in the NFL in terms of yards per game on the ground in 2001. They were 7th in number of rushing attempts.

That all changed in 2002, the year of the spread and chuck. New England's rushing attack fell to 28th in yards per game, 28th in rushing attempts, and 27th in yards per attempt. Tom Brady emerged as a very good pocket passer, but do the Patriots need a running game?

"We've established that if we want to be a top contender we have to be more well-rounded and more efficient running the ball," Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said recently.

RB Antowain Smith is feeling the weight of a disappointing campaign in 2002.

"At times I saw myself dancing around," Smith said just after the season ended. "Sometimes the holes were there, I just didn't do a good enough job of reading them. The offensive line did a good job. But we all could have done better as a group.

"A lot of it was my fault. Some people might say I wasn't running quite as hard as I was last year. I think I was. I thought I did everything they asked me to do."

Smith came off a promising season in 2001, raising hopes that the Patriots had found their feature back. However, Smith arrived at mini-camp last off-season out of shape. Whether his poor conditioning affected his play in 2002 is anyone's guess, but the Patriots organization certainly took note.

"I think Antowain had his best off-season here," head coach Bill Belichick said about Smith in this year's mini-camp. "He's in better condition than at this point last year. We know what kind of player and what kind of person Antowain is and I am expecting that he will be ready to go and give us his best and that's all we can ask him to do. I think he's given every indication that that's his mindset and is what he is ready to do."

Despite the optimistic words from Belichick, the Patriots are likely very concerned about the status of the running game heading into camp and the 2003 season. Kevin Faulk is more of a 3rd-down back that provides a receiving threat out of the backfield. New England is likely still fishing for a back to shoulder the rushing load and Smith may not be the chosen one.

Thus far, the Patriots have been trolling for a running game in the dregs of the NFL. Are they really content to go into 2003 with Faulk and Smith as the primary rushing attack?

Recent rumors circulating around the NFL suggest otherwise. The Patriots have a few targets, but they have yet to see the right back come onto the market.

The answer may be sitting in Pittsburgh, with the Steelers, a team that New England has raided before for the likes of Mike Vrabel. Before the 2001 season and Smith's breakout year, the Patriots signed RFA Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala to an offer sheet that the Steelers eventually matched to prevent him from switching teams.

"He's a big back. He's a physical back. He has real good hands," said Belichick about Fuamatu-Ma'afala before the AFC Championship game against the Steelers. "It just looked like he'd be able to be more of an every-down back than what they were using him as. Of course, they have Jerome Bettis. He just wasn't getting any opportunity. It was a little bit like the Vrabel situation in that we thought we saw a good player. We also saw some real good players playing in front of him. ... There were a lot of things to like about him."

Fu continues to languish behind a rejuvenated Jerome Bettis and the emerging Amos Zereoue in the Steelers backfield. Add to that promising second-year back Verron Haynes, and Fu's days may be numbered in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers will likely cut bait, for salary cap reasons, with Fuamatu-Ma'afala if Bettis and Zereoue have strong camps and Haynes proves himself a capable backup. Haynes has spent the off-season trying to improve his running game by spending time with Bettis. The Patriots may even try to accelerate the process by offering one of their many draft picks in 2004, most likely a second-day, low-round position.

Even if acquiring the services for Fu does not develop, look for the Patriots to make one more move for the running game before the season gets under way.

Jim Russell

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