The Belichick-era Patriots have refined the process of getting the most out of veteran running backs.
Which is why the addition of Ezekiel Elliott today is businesses as usual at 1 Patriot Place.
The production of the backs in this article spans a total of 17 NFL seasons from 2001 to 2016. The Patriots reached the playoffs in 15 of them. And, appeared in 7 Super Bowls.
The first back that comes to mind is Corey Dillon. Dillon had some truly insane seasons in Cincinnati that were never fully recognized because the “Bungles” were so bad. But that’s what made his production even more incredible – no help. The Patriots swooped in. And, cashed in.
In 2004 his age 30 season, Dillon was traded to the New England Patriots for a second-round pick. That season, Dillon set career highs and franchise records with 1,635 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. New England won its third Super Bowl, due in no small part to the running game built around Dillon.
He was the top rusher of Super Bowl XXXIX with 75 rushing yards and a touchdown, while also catching 3 passes for 31 yards, for 106 total yards. That same season, Dillon rushed for a total of 292 yards, caught 9 passes for 53 yards, and scored 2 touchdowns in New England’s three postseason games. He scored 37 regular season TDs in 3 seasons in New England.
Lead back 2004-2006.
In 2008 in his age 31 season, Morris led the Patriots in rushing. This was the year of Tom Brady‘s destroyed in the second quarter of the season by Bernard Pollard against the Chiefs.
The Patriots had to figure out a new offense on the fly, Morris became a core piece of an 11-5 season, and Matt Cassel had the best season of his life.
2007-2009 lead back (played 16 games in 2010).
Antowain Smith had one of the best seasons for a running back in Buffalo Bills history. In 1998 he ran for 1147 yards and scored eight TUDS. He was hurt for parts of the next two seasons, scoring 10 TDs and accumulating just under 1,000 yards. He was 28 and the bills thought he was toast.
In 2001, his age 29 season, Smith rejuvenated his career when he joined the New England Patriots. He ran for 1,157 yards and 13 total touchdowns in the regular season. He also ran for 204 yards in the playoffs as the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI. The following season he scored 8 TUDs and rushed for 982.
Lead back 2001 to 2003.
Blount makes an appearance on this list because of his second appearance with the Patriots. After leaving for the Steelers, Blount was placed on outright waivers, and the Pats picked him up. He was gradually integrated back in Bill Belichick’s good graces before his monster season.
In 2004 after being secured as an end of season free agent acquisition, Blount scored three touchdowns in five games. In the postseason he had 43 carries for 187 yards and three TDs. The Patriots won the Super Bowl.
After 700+ yards rushing and eight TDs in 2015, he blew up and had the best season of his career. In his age 30 season he led the NFL with 18 rushing TDs. A pounding north/south running style, his 1,161 led the team. Most importantly he secured another Lombardi Trophy for his efforts.
Lead back: 2014 – 2016.
Woodhead is a great example of how as times change so do the Patriots. The other guys on this list are straight-ahead runners, which was the style of the NFL at those times. As the game evolved to feature running backs being used more as receivers out of the backfield (thank you Bill Walsh and Don Coryell), the Pats adapted with Woodhead.
After a year and a half with the Jets, they placed him on waivers. The Patriots swooped in and picked up the former two-time Harlon Trophy winner, which happened to be the same week the Pats faced the Jets. The media dubbed it as a classic Belichick strategy move. And it may have been, except one thing – Woodhead started producing and never stopped.
In 2010 he jumped in and immediately produced accumulating 926 total yards and TDs; he averaged 8.6 yards per touch. This was after appearing in one game on special teams for the Jets, never even accumulating a statistic.
Woodhead was a Wes Welker fingertip dropped pass away from winning Super Bowl XLVI. Alas, it was successful three year run as the Patriots made the playoffs each year and Woodhead cashed in, signing a large free agent deal with the Chargers and playing another five NFL seasons.
Ultra back: 2010 to 2012.
In his age 33 and 34 seasons, he rushed for 414 yards and four touchdowns. The Patriots made the playoffs and went a combined 24-6 in his two years under Belichick.
Admittedly Taylor wasn’t as statistically productive as others on this list. But maybe that illustrates the key reason for the success under Belichick.
If they can get two years out of a broken down Fragile Freddy Taylor when no one else would, it goes to show there is a system in place.
The Patriots system is this: taking once productive backs at the end of their careers, bringing them into Foxboro on low risk/high reward contracts, and adjusting their usage to the styles of each, in the context of the offense.
Not only were these backs productive, but each one extended his career by several seasons because the Patriots knew how to use them.
Need another example, in-house? Kevin Faulk
They’ve done it with other running backs and Ezekiel Elliott could possibly be next.