Patriots' running back Laurence Maroney has struggled to get on track this season after suffering a shoulder injury in week 2. Designated as the team's starter in the off-season, Maroney has done little to secure that position, with Sunday's performance against the San Francisco 49ers putting his starting role in question.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't about to throw the talented back under the bus, but something had to be said when Maroney was benched in favor of Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan on Sunday. When asked about Maroney's status, Belichick would only offer that he still has confidence in his back.
"I think Laurence has done a good job for us," Belichick said. "He's a good back. He's played well and I think he will continue to play well."
If Maroney played well, then how does Belichick explain why Maroney was on the sideline while Morris, Jordan and Kevin Faulk carried the load?
"With the running backs and our offensive game plans, you know those change and fluctuate week to week and even sometimes within the game," Belichick explained. "Depending on how we have our personnel grouped for a particular game or the situations that come up, it could be different players doing the same thing or it different players doing different things on a week to week basis. "
Maybe Belichick's philosophy explains why Maroney started the game, but moved to the sideline after struggling early. The back missed a crucial stretch of the game. After falling behind 7-0, on two three-and-outs the Patriots inserted Kevin Faulk into the lineup. Three plays later Matt Cassel hit Randy Moss deep to tie the game. The next series Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris carried the ball. The following two series LaMont Jordan was the man until he was hurt and Maroney stepped in for a few plays.
Though Maroney played, he barely saw the field, and didn't carry the ball at all in the fourth quarter. What made Maroney's absence more unusual was that Jordan was out of the game in the second half with a leg injury.
New England Patriots' Kevin Faulk is tackled by San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008. The Patriots won 30-21. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Belichick thought the other backs stepped up well while Jordan was out, none more so than Kevin Faulk.
"Kevin did a great job, as he always does. He's such a dependable player for us. He ran the ball well," said the coach. "Blitz pickup, he's always been solid. It seems like no matter what we ask him to he does a good job, but he certainly did that."
Maroney had his fair share of touches for the game (10) but he didn't make enough positive plays, something Belichick stresses on the offense. Maroney finished the day with 10 carries for 26 yards (2.6 avg.), while Faulk had jut 7 carries but manages 32 yards (4.6avg.) and two TDs. Sammy Morris led all backs with 16 carries for 63 yards (3.9 avg.)
Faulk wasn't one to bask in the glow of his two-TD performance despite not having a game like that since college. His focus was on getting better.
"Every game that you play you try to improve," Faulk said after the game. "[Last] week we tried to improve our red zone offense and I think we worked hard on it and it showed. You just have to be consistent with it and keep moving."
Sammy Morris also wasn't concerned about the playing time of each back during the game, To Morris it was more about each player doing their part when the opportunity presented itself.
"I don't think it plays a factor in the way we approach practice or games," said Morris. "The biggest thing in finding the quote-unquote leading role is for the media guides and programs. Once the game gets there we let the coaches make that decision. In order to do that you have to have the right character guys in the mindset of 'we're all looking to make the most of our opportunities when we get them in the game and like I said, putting the team first is our biggest focus."
So what about Maroney's decision to go out of bounds on one run around left end when he could have leaned forward for the first down?
The Patriots needed three yards and Maroney stepped out after 2. His decision appeared to either be one to avoid contact on his shoulder, or he wasn't thinking. After that Maroney had a diminished role in the offense.
"That's situational football," said Morris of short yardage runs. "That's one thing that Coach Belichick is always emphasizing. If it's third and one and you get two yards it's probably not good on the average but it keeps the drive going.
" I think short yardage and the goal line, those types of runs are close to 90 percent attitude and heart just to be able to find a little seam or a little crack and force your way to the first down and keep the drive going."
Morris and Jordan have built their reputations as hard-nosed backs who get the tough yards. Maroney is slowly building a reputation as a finesse runner. Though injuries may be the reason, it's not what the Patriots need a from their running backs at this time.
Maroney has already missed 6 of the first 35 regular season games of his career (nearly 17% ). The Patriots selected the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder with the 21st pick in the 2006 NFL Draft . Part of a record setting tandem at Minnesota in college, Maroney was considered the home run threat while his teammate Marion Barber was the tough inside runner. So far, Maroney hasn't proven to be worthy of the top choice by the Patriots, at least not based upon production.
Missing in 2008 has been Maroney's big play threat. His longest run of the year is just 17 yards.
Image from Dolphins game Dec. 2007 (AP Photo)
Maroney has gained just 93 yards on 28 carries (3.3 avg.) this season. Joseph Addai, who was chosen by the Colts nine spots after Maroney in the 2006 Draft, has already turned in back-to-back 1000 yard seasons his first two years in the league. Maroney has yet to break the 850 mark and is on pace to finish with about 400 this season.
Are the Patriots going to bench Maroney?
Probably not. But, they're not about to keep feeding him the ball as the team's primary back until he gets out of the funk that has held him back. One reason Jordan was signed according to one inside source was to supplement Morris in case he ended up getting hurt. Knowing that Morris was more reliable than Maroney in short yardage situations, the team needed a second back who was capable of getting the tough yards inside, and that didn't include Maroney.
Belichick didn't say that Maroney will be given less carries, but with a tough San Diego defense next up on the schedule look for more Morris and Jordan carrying the ball for the tough yards with Maroney splitting time with Kevin Faulk as the change of pace back.
Hot Topic: Time To Bench Maroney?