EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 17, 2009

No running game equals no Super Bowl

Bill Burt

Here's a quickie quiz: When did quarterback John Elway finally win a Super Bowl?

If you said 1998 — Jan. 25 to be exact — you are only half correct.

Elway won the Super Bowl when he had a very good, maybe even great, running attack by his side. After a long career of success, including three Super Bowl losses, Elway went from big-game choker to Hall of Fame legend when they added Terrell Davis to the roster. In the two seasons the Broncos won back-to-back titles ('97 and '98), Davis rushed for a combined 3,758 yards and 36 touchdowns.

Well, guess what? We could say the same thing about Tom Brady.

Two of Brady's three Super Bowl championship seasons — 2001 and 2004 — were the same years the Patriots had a legitimate, balanced offensive attack with running backs Antoine Smith (1,157 yards, 12 TDs in '01) and Corey Dillon (1,635 yards and 12 TDs in '04) were Pro Bowl players.

Why do I bring up this subject so soon after such a debilitating loss?

Because coaching blunders aside, the Patriots are susceptible to comebacks like the one we saw just before midnight late Sunday night.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the Patriots comfortably control a 17-point lead, a 13-point lead or even a 6-point lead in the fourth quarter, like they used to?

You know how you do that? You run the football.

By that I don't mean the Kevin Faulk trap plays, which I adore. I mean first-and-10, I-formation, and the other team knows you're running the ball. And they can't stop you.

The four-yard run, while not as pretty as the six-yard "bubble screen" to Wes Welker or the seven-yard slant to Randy Moss, is a lost art around Foxboro these days.

But the four-yard run on first down is more effective. Not only does it set up play-action — freezing linebackers who are respecting a potential running play — but it creates a mentality ... We are tougher than you.

This was a lesson I figured the Patriots learned in 2007. As the weather got colder and the games got tougher, the 40-point offensive assaults disappeared.

January and February defenses are tougher.

We all know what happened on Super Bowl Sunday in Glendale, Az. The Patriots, scoring only 14 points, fell a few seconds, and one incredible play by David Tyree, short.

Fast-forward to Sunday night in Indianapolis, when the Patriots appeared to have everything in place. They had the lead and, more important, they had a frustrated quarterback on the Colts sideline.

But they couldn't get the couple of first downs needed to keep Peyton Manning from remaining frustrated.

Patriots running back Laurence Maroney did not have a banner game Sunday night. And I'm not only referring to his fumble on the goalline, costing the Patriots another touchdown in the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, with the Patriots leading, Maroney ran the ball four times for five yards.

The Patriots attempt to play smash-mouth football and run out the clock failed miserably.

We can debate Maroney's ability to carry a team or even run out the clock in the fourth quarter. My guess is most would say it's not part of his package.

Maybe the oft-injured Fred Taylor, who played that role in the 26-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 27 with 104 yards on 21 carries, was supposed to be that guy.

Or maybe it's the other oft-injured running back, Sammy Morris, who averaged 17 carries and 97 yards, over the final three games (all victories) in 2008.

Brady has nothing to prove. He is an all-time great, ranking anywhere from first to third on most lists (I have him tied with Manning for second place).

In fact, if he had another 45 seconds, my educated guess is the Patriots would have had a 45-yard field goal attempt to win the game.

And we wouldn't be comparing Bill Belichick to Grady Little.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com