By Sterling Pingree
As Black Friday shoppers prepare to get up at hours that would make a farmer hit the snooze button once or twice, I got to thinking about all of the door buster deals that we’ve seen in Boston sports over the years. Whether it’s a late draft pick emerging from out of nowhere (Tom Brady perhaps) or a heist of a trade with an unwitting patsy, (Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb comes to mind) or a cheap free agent who winds up getting his number retired (Big Papi anybody?) the masterminds of our local teams have lined up at the automatic doors and trampled a few competitors in order to walk away with gifts that keep on giving.
One could make the argument that the New England Patriots have feasted on bargains at every position over the years, but upon further inspection, they’ve stocked up on sale priced running backs particularly.
Running back for the New England has been a revolving door since the team’s inception. Work horse backs like Jim Nance and Sam “Bam” Cunningham are an extinct species in Foxboro. Nance held the post for 7 years and was followed up by Cunningham’s nine-year term as the dean of the Pats back field. Since then however, the Patriots have been bargain hunters and have walked away with a cacophony of backs who have carried the load while carrying the ball.
The Patriots drafted Curtis Martin in the 3rd round, 74th overall in 1995. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his 3-years in New England. (He also rushed for over 1,000 yards for the next 7 years as a Jet, but I don’t like to think about that.) Martin owns the Patriots single season record for rushing touch downs with 14, which he did twice!
Martin’s replacement was Robert Edwards, who is remembered as “The guy who got injured playing beach volleyball” which is almost true. He was injured playing beach football during Pro Bowl weekend after his rookie season; a season that saw him rush for 1,115 yards and 9 touch downs. The injury would effectively end his career, save for a brief stint in 2002 with the Miami Dolphins.
Antowain Smith was picked up off the scrap heap by the Patriots after he left an overcrowded backfield in Buffalo. Smith rushed for over 1,000 yards in his first season with the Patriots and was a key part of two Super Bowl champions. Smith was let go after Super Bowl 38 because of one of the most controversial trades in Patriots history; trading a 2nd round pick for the disgruntled Corey Dillon. Dillon rushed for over 3,000 yards and 37 touch downs over his 3 years as a Patriot and in his first season (2004) rushed for 1,600 yards as the Patriots hoisted their 3rd Lombardi trophy.
(This is where our pact to forget that we wasted a first round pick on Laurence Maroney comes in handy.)
In 2011, the Patriots were in need of a running back and Alabama Heisman winning, bell cow Mark Ingram was on the board. Belichick as is his wont, traded the spot for two later picks and nabbed Shane Vereen in the 2nd round and Stevan Ridley in the 3rd round. Ridley produced as a primary back, including a break out 2012 campaign that saw him rush for 1,263 yards with 12 touch downs. Vereen became a vital piece of the Patriots offense and had arguably his best game as a Patriot in Super Bowl 49.
Spanning the entire run from the Robert Edwards injury to the first season of Ridley and Vereen, was backfield staple Kevin Faulk. Faulk was a second round pick, pretty high for where most Patriots backs are acquired, but remember Faulk was drafted during the Pete Carroll era. Faulk’s numbers have never told the story of his value to the Patriots. It’s rare that anybody plays 13 years in the NFL, it’s even rarer for all 13 years to be spent with one team. As a result, Faulk is one of three running backs in the Patriots Hall of Fame, joining Nance and Cunningham.
The Patriots current back, LeGarrette Blount, might be the greatest bargain back in team history. The Patriots traded sprinter and Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps straight up for Blount. Blount had shown flashes in Tampa before coming to New England but not many believed when the trade was made that he’d contribute much, because Demps had missed the entire previous season with an injury. Player for player trades in the NFL don’t happen often and even rarer is two players that play the same position. You have to wonder why Tampa Bay would trade a back who had had any level of NFL success for a sprinter who hadn’t played in the league. Demps only played 3 games for the Bucs in 2013 and has been out of football ever since.
In this, a contract year, Blount is putting up his best numbers as a pro with 802 yards and 12 touch downs through just 10 games. The Patriots let him walk once in 2014, for a brief 11 game hiatus in Pittsburgh before welcoming him back with open arms when the Steelers released him. Will the Patriots splurge to keep a back that knows the system well? Or will Belichick head back out to the market and hope for the lowest price on a back that can deliver the gift that everybody in New England wants: a 5th Lombardi trophy.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.