Competition generally brings out the best in people. If that theory holds true in the New England backfield this fall, and if the offensive line can pull together some semblance of continuity, then the Patriots head into the season sporting arguably the most talented depth at running back that the team has had in decades.
Third-year back and still very much unproven workhorse Laurence Maroney holds down the starting job. But behind the athletically gifted, confident youngster New England could very well run out a group that includes experienced returnees Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Heath Evans as well as summer free-agent addition LaMont Jordan. All told it's a potential five-man backfield that's talent and experience might only be eclipsed by its versatility. That, of course, assumes there's room on the 53-man roster come Aug. 30 for each of the players.
Coach Bill Belichick used his "whatever's best for the team" mantra while also pointing to his carrying of a seemingly inordinate number of quarterbacks in 2000 when queried recently about the possibility of carrying extra ball carriers.
"We will keep the best football players; the ones that help our football team the most," Belichick said. "Whoever they are. If we would keep four quarterbacks, I would think we could keep five running backs."
If that's the case, then it will be up to Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and even special teams coordinator Brad Seely to put the group to use.
"We have good competition there with players that have different skills and different styles of play. They have all been effective for us in the past, or given the opportunity LaMont has had in his time here he has shown to be effective," Belichick said. "Heath, Laurence, Sammy, Kevin and LaMont have all been productive with the ball in their hands, either running it or catching it and in some cases returning it."
Interestingly, the biggest question in that group might be the guy atop the position. Maroney came on late last season after injuries cut short portions of his first two years in the league. He capped his sophomore campaign with four 100-yard efforts in his final six games (including postseason work), totaling seven rushing scores with at least one touchdown in every contest.
Healthy throughout the offseason program this spring in New England, Maroney hopes to build on his closing credits from a year ago.
"It gave me a little bit more confidence in myself, to let me know that once I put my mind to it I can go out and be a good back in the NFL," Maroney said of his productive close to '07. "It's just the point of being patient and going out there and doing what I do best.
"I didn't have doubts, but it gets kind of frustrating knowing that you have the ability to play more than you have been playing. It's basically just sitting back and waiting my turn and waiting for when they called my name."
That's a waiting game that as many as five running backs could be playing on game days this fall as New England works to augment its record-breaking offense from a year ago that was a pass-first attack. And the depth and versatility of the group can only truly shine and fall in line if Maroney can carry his heavy share of the load atop the group.