Patriots strike gold with unheralded RBs

Posted Jan. 12, 2011 @ 1:47 p.m.
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By Ian R. Rapoport

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — BenJarvus Green-Ellis had barely propped himself up off the Gillette Stadium turf, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick was already running out to meet him.

It was the end of a meaningless game, the regular-season finale that the Patriots had in their pocket since before halftime. Yet the drama, for some, had only recently ended.

Green-Ellis, the sudden star, busted out a 10-yard run, cutting behind the block of reserve OT Quinn Ojinnaka and breaking into the open field. When he landed, he had reached a milestone that observers would have thought impossible prior to the 2010 season.

He's gained more than 1,000 rushing yards.

The reticent Green-Ellis shrugged — like he always does.

"Don't have time to get mesmerized or stuck in some kind of moment," he said.

But it was Belichick's reaction that was priceless.

Already near the hashmarks, Belichick raced out, searching for the ball to provide Green-Ellis with a keepsake, then searching for his ballcarrier for a thunderous embrace.

In a stunning 14-2 season, one that has featured contributions from a bevy of under-the-radar stars, Green-Ellis is the example. And he's not the only one in his own backfield.

Tag-team partner Danny Woodhead, who is third in the NFL among rushers with 60-plus carries with 5.6 yards per carry, joins him in significance.

"The running backs are a tight-knit group, and I think we feed off of each other," Woodhead said. "Football is a team sport, and we are a team."

An underpublicized, unexpected, out-of-nowhere duo. For an offense that boasts star QB Tom Brady, receivers like Pro Bowler Wes Welker and former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, it's easy to figure out where the spotlights shine.

That's why Green-Ellis' 10-yard carry was so significant. For once, a Patriots running back received the credit he deserved.

"Benny has been steady, he's been wanting it," veteran RB Fred Taylor said. "And it comes from — it's his family. That's just the mindset that they have. He's a young guy with an old soul. He's very mature, very smart, and he's passionate about what he's doing. That's just BenJarvus."

Afterward, Belichick downplayed the significance, saying his team was more focused on team goals than individual achievements. His actions told the real story of how much he valued the accomplishment. So did the actions of Green-Ellis' teammates.

"(Belichick) was just saying that we worked hard and we earned it," Green-Ellis recounted, following the 38-7 win over the Dolphins on Jan. 2. "We went out every day as an offensive unit and we worked hard. We worked hard. And Kevin (Faulk) was on the sideline; he kept telling me, 'Keep running hard, we need to get here.' That's kind of what I did."

It is what Green-Ellis always does. It's what Woodhead does, too.

Green-Ellis, the 5-11, 215-pounder, gained 1,008 yards on 229 carries with an average of 4.4 yards per rush and 13 touchdowns, with a total number of negative carries that can be counted on one hand.

Woodhead, the 5-8, 195-pounder, gained 547 yards on 97 carries with five touchdowns, not to mention his 379 receiving yards that came on 34 catches.

No wonder the Patriots are ninth in rushing with 123.3 yards per game and 10th with 4.3 yards per rush.

"We call those guys 'playmakers,' '' RB coach Ivan Fears said. "Those guys have that. That's why they're on the field."

No-nonsense businessmen, they simply work. Green-Ellis and Woodhead, in their quietly productive way, get it done. They've allowed Brady, who is on an unprecedented streak of 335 passes without an interception, to befuddle defenses with devastating play-action and keep the chains moving.

Welker (86 catches for 848 yards) and TEs Aaron Hernandez (563 receiving yards) and Rob Gronkowski (10 touchdowns) have feasted underneath on linebackers who are slowed in coverage while following the play fake.

Last year, there was a threat of a run game. This year, with an assist from blocking TE Alge Crumpler, there is an actual, real run game.

Simply, Green-Ellis and Woodhead go to work. Yet earlier in the season, it would not have surprised anyone if both were out of work.

Green-Ellis was on the verge of ending up on the cutting-room floor, as the Patriots already had four stable, veteran running backs. He was merely a special-teamer. Then, the dominoes began to fall.

Former first-round draft pick Laurence Maroney was traded, shipped to the Broncos for a mid-round pick. Then, early in the season, Taylor suffered turf toe on both feet, an ailment that sidelined him for two months.

Green-Ellis was simply available and ready. He hasn't fumbled since high school, he always falls forward and he hasn't missed a game.

In a star-studded backfield that featured two first-round picks and a second-rounder in Faulk, who may be one of the NFL's best third-down backs ever, it wasn't any of them who has toted the rock this year with the game on the line.

"I never worry about things that I can't control," Green-Ellis said. "The only thing I can control is coming to practice, coming to the games, working hard, do the best that I can and put my best foot forward."

As for Woodhead, his story is just as out-of-the-blue.

Despite his star turn on the HBO docudrama "Hard Knocks," and despite everyone who followed the Jets realizing that he was far more valuable than disappointing fourth-round pick Joe McKnight, Woodhead was released by the Jets after Week One. He wasn't unemployed for long.

The Patriots swooped in and signed him before their matchup with Gang Green, and the thought was that Belichick's goal was simply to pump him for information. Nope.

Faulk tore his ACL in Week Two, and there was little Woodhead, waiting and poised. At first, teammates shrugged off his performances — a 36-yard winding touchdown run against the Colts, a 22-yard run against Buffalo, his 104-receiving-yard explosion vs. his old team in the second meeting.

They spouted the company line, saying he was simply playing Faulk's role, not taking Faulk's place. By now, there is no denying, Woodhead has done what Faulk did and maybe more.

"He understands the rules and assignments," Fears said. "He's done an excellent job of picking up our schemes. And most importantly, he's been doggone effective as a blocker. He's stood up against guys when he's had to and he's cut them down when he had the opportunity to.''

Their styles could not be more different.

Green-Ellis is tough and physical, never one to duck or dodge, regularly taking hard shots from tacklers. He gets yards — rarely more, rarely less. He thrives on one simple cut, then holds the ball tight, bows his neck and charges forward.

"Benny's been running great," Brady said. "Benny sees the hole, he hits it. He's got really good vision. It's not like we're looking to run every play outside and run around the corner."

Woodhead is short and stocky, with sharp, quick steps that take him nearly as fast side-to-side as they do north and south. He runs in quick bursts, hiding behind his linemen and making it difficult for defenders to find him. That's an inherent advantage few have. And when he makes a cut, he comes out of it at the same speed as he went into it.

"He's amazing, and no one thinks a little kid like that is going to be able to get through a line and make people miss and break tackles," Hernandez said. "Woodhead can do it all — passing game, coming out of the backfield, running the ball — he does it all."

Asked if Woodhead can do what Faulk did, Branch immediately begins nodding.

"That's a good job by the scouting department, the guys upstairs going out, getting the right guys that fit that position," Branch said. "I guess, thanks to the Jets, they let him go that easy. He's a great player; he's a great teammate to be around."

The result is a one-touch punch that Patriots fans may watch for years to come. Don't be surprised if Faulk, Taylor and Sammy Morris all retire or are let go following the season. They have had long and productive careers.

The new blood is Woodhead, who just signed a two-year deal that included a $425,000 signing bonus, and Green-Ellis, whose minimum contract expires after this season. Perhaps the Patriots add a running back in the draft (Alabama's Mark Ingram, anyone?), but if not, they may only add a complementary piece in free agency.

Over the course of the year, their faces have entered the public's consciousness. But they are beginning to get recognized. Woodhead recently took part in a Reebok commercial where he pretended to be a clerk selling his own jersey, and just a few people caught on. Expect that to change. It will for Green-Ellis, too.

On Sunday, Green-Ellis will be on the field for the Patriots' first playoff game, and Woodhead will shake off a head injury to follow after him.

"We're not slacking off," Green-Ellis said. "We got to continue to get better."

Knowing them, they will.


Ian R. Rapoport covers the Patriots for the Boston Herald.

This column was first published in the Jan. 16, 2011, print edition of Pro Football Weekly, which also contains features on Bears QB Jay Cutler, Falcons head coach Mike Smith, and rehired interim coaches Leslie Frazier and Jason Garrett, as well as previews of all four divisional playoff games and an early fantasy draft board for 2011. The PFW print edition is on sale at retail outlets across the country and also online at, where both print and electronic (PDF) versions can be purchased.