EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 28, 2009

Taylor-made win

Veteran running back provides spark Patriots were lacking

Bill Burt

FOXBORO — Welcome to the game plan, Fred Taylor.

It took a little while — two weeks and one quarter — but you may have changed the direction of the 2009 New England Patriots' football season.

Taylor helped New England earn a 26-10 victory over the previously unbeaten Atlanta Falcons.

While Taylor's final numbers were impressive for a running back-by-committee member (21 rushes, 105 yards, 1 TD), it was four plays, all in a row, and 41 yards early in the second quarter, that may have changed the Patriots' season.

With the ball on the Falcons' 41 and the score tied 3-3, Taylor got his first touch, which turned into an eight-yard run. On second down, he got another touch and broke two tackles for 19 yards. On the third play, Taylor got six yards — three of which came after first contact.

The final play of the sequence saw Taylor go up the middle untouched for an eight-yard score.

While that might not be the stuff of legends, around here, where it is pass, pass and then pass again, we take notice.

The Falcons scored on their next possession to tie the score but the damage was done.

The Patriots could run the football, which means for 50 plays a game the offensive linemen won't have worry about saving Tom Brady's life.

"It was nice to see the game plan this week," said Patriots center Dan Koppen. "We knew we were going to establish the run. Of course, that's music to every offensive linemen's ears."

Taylor's performance shouldn't be shocking to any of us. The Patriots signed the 33-year-old Taylor over the winter to a two-year, $8 million contract, which included a $1.45 million signing bonus.

We figured Taylor might have days like this. He entered the season ranked 16th overall in NFL history for rushing yards by a running back.

But after two games in which Brady threw 100 passes versus only 43 running plays, we were beginning to wonder.

The fact that Taylor seemed to be hiding in the mix of "tailbacks" behind Laurence Maroney and ahead of Sammy Morris was a concern.

"I didn't have any expectations coming here," said Taylor. "I just wanted to do whatever coach Belichick asked. That's all."

If you're wondering if the Patriots offensive linemen took notice, wonder no more.

"Fred is tough. He never stops running," said Patriots left guard Logan Mankins. "We appreciate that a lot. It pumps me up."

Koppen took it a step further.

"When a guy fights like that for extra yards it makes me want to work harder to block for him," said Koppen.

That sounds like it might be a veiled jab at the guy Taylor replaced, Laurence Maroney, who left the game after injuring his thigh.

The holes seem to close quickly when Maroney runs. And when Maroney gets hit, he doesn't seem to run for a lot of extra yards afterward.

It was only three quarters of one game in late September, but Taylor may have changed our perceptions. Maybe the holes are there. Maybe the running back position has been the problem.

The Patriots had the ball for 39:49, almost twice as long as the Falcons' offense (20:11).

That is a winning recipe against any team and Taylor was responsible for much of that stat.

Kevin Faulk, Maroney and Morris combined for 58 yards on 14 carries.

Going forward, Taylor's durability is an issue. He has missed games to injury in seven of his previous 11 seasons, including the last three games of 2008.

Can Taylor, who turns 34 on Jan. 27, be the lead back on a Super Bowl contender?

"Of course, why not?" said Taylor. "Whatever it takes to win a game."

He's got my vote. I'm pretty sure he has yours. And I know this: If the offensive line got a vote, it would be Taylor in a landslide.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.