By Rich Levine
Ive got a pretty clear memory of the first drive of Laurence Maroneys career.
It was Week 1 of the 2006 season, against the Bills, and thanks to the mess that is Gillette security, I was a little late getting into the stadium.
I was actually still running through the concourse during the kick off, but thankfully got to my seats, grossly out breath, just in time for the first snap of the season. Just in time to see Tom Brady get drilled by Takeo Spikes, the ball hit the ground, London Fletcher pick it up and the Bills go up 7-0. It also didnt help that at this point I was basically dry-heaving from my 30-second sprint.
Anyway, the offense comes back onto the field, and on the fourth play from scrimmage (confession: I had to look that part up), No. 39 trots into the huddle. Hes built more like a strong safety than a running back. He has Whoopi Goldberg dreadlocks hanging out the back of his helmet. He takes that first carry and bursts up the middle.
And this wasnt just any burst. This was like dropping Mentos into a two-liter bottle of Coke burst. It was an explosion. He broke through the middle, picking up speed as he went, inviting contact, destroying anything in his path. Twenty-seven yards later he was finally pushed out of bounds.
I started laughing.
Two plays later, and its third-and-five; Brady's in the shotgun and No. 39's back in the game. This time he takes the ball on a draw, runs off-guard and into daylight. Twenty-two yards later and New England not only had its running back of the future, but its future, in general.
Again, I started laughing. And this wasnt just a little chuckle. It was hilarious, borderline maniacal laughter. I couldnt believe that this was the Patriots' new running back. That this high-speed, 220-pound bull dozer was now in New England. How great was this going to be? I was in awe. I was giddy.
Typically, you wouldnt jump to such conclusions after the first two carries of an NFL career. But back in 2006, it was easy. Back then, if you were the first pick of the New England Patriots, you were going to be somebody. Before Maroney, the Pats had selected (in reverse order) Logan Mankins, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Daniel Graham and Richard Seymour with their first pick. So when Maroney went No. 21 in 2006, we were ready for the next star, and it wouldnt take much convincing. Two carries for 49 yards just about did the trick.
And it wasn't just the yards, it was also how he got them. Like I mentioned, the guy loved contact. He got more joy out of stiff-arming a cornerback into the ground than breaking ankles with a juke move (although he could do that, too). With every step, he became fast and harder to take down. He had an unmatched determination, one that would leave him primed to lead the rushing attack once Corey Dillon hung them up.
And it didn't hurt that he had a personality to match. He had the braids. He had more bling inside his mouth than Bill Russell has on his fingers. He had an amazing nickname: Kool Aid, and wore a Kool Aid Man chain the size of Wes Welker around his neck. He was just cool. Ridiculous cool.
The first year played out pretty much as planned. Of course he didnt average 20 yards a carry, but he showed us he was ready. He was the perfect compliment to Dillon, a beast in the return game, and gave us no reason to worry about his future.
In 2007, he was the lead back in the greatest offense in NFL history. He played in 13 games, ran for 885 yards, six touchdowns, and didnt fumble once. In all honesty, we probably expected a little more out of him that second season, but how could you find fault in the Patriots offense? How could Maroney have really made them any better than they were? As the Pats moved into playoff mode, Maroney followed suit, with back-to-back, bruising 125-yard games in wins over the Jaguar and Chargers. His Super Bowl performance was forgettable, but, hey, so was that whole Super Bowl.
This time, 2008 was supposed to be the year he made it, until a shoulder injury ended "it" after three games. Meanwhile, by this time, a trio of running backs who were drafted behind Maroney were leaving their mark on the league. Deangelo Williams (drafted five spots after) ran for 1,500 yard and an NFL-leading 18 touchdowns. Joseph Addai (drafted nine spots after) was slightly off in 2008, but had already amassed two 1,000-yard seasons and a Super Bowl ring. Maurice Jones Drew (drafted 39 spots after) had scored a combined 40 touchdowns by the time his third season was over, and was even better in 2009. Theyd all graduated to the upper echelon of NFL running backs, but the Kool Aid Man was still stuck in 10th grade. He just couldnt get it right. He never joined the rest of the class.
Thats not to say that Maroney didnt have his chances. Sure, he was never handed the role of "featured back," but he was given every opportunity to earn it. Partly because he was a first-round pick, and you want to give those guys every chance in the world to prove their worth. But it was also because the Patriots still believed that he might turn it around. They saw the same potential we all did. The potential was unquestionable (unlike the man himself, who seemed to always be listed as questionable).
If he could just put it all together, then . . .
Then, I dont know.
Well never know. At least not here in New England. At least not the way we all envisioned it would be, with Laurence Maroney bridging the gap to another chapter of the Patriots Dynasty and with that beastly figure and those Whoopi Goldberg braids becoming a fixture in the Gillette Stadium end zone.
Its the end of an era. The "God, whens Maroney finally going to figure this out?" Era.
In a way, its a relief. But you also have to feel bad that he'll probably never reach the expectations we once dreamed of. And maybe a little stupid, or at least I do, for jumping to such lofty conclusions in the first place.
Blame it injuries. Blame it on Belichick. Blame it on whatever.
I'll blame it on the most memorable first two touches in Patriots history. It was only downhill from there.