Young Patriots running backs learning from veteran Woodhead

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Young Patriots running backs learning from veteran Woodhead

FOXBORO -- Without Kevin Faulk roaming through the Patriots locker room and in running back meetings at Gillette Stadium, Ivan Fears needed a veteran presence.

He needed someone who was going to show second-year running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and rookie running back Brandon Bolden, that being a successful player in the NFL is more than just what you do on Sundays.

As the Patriots enter their bye weekend with a 5-3 record midway through the regular season, Fears' young -- and now very successful -- running back group is benefiting from the message of his eldest back: 27-year-old Danny Woodhead.

"Oh, I love to have a veteran around. Woody's my veteran," said the Patriots' running back coach on Thursday. "Ya, he's my veteran. Shoot, he keeps everything going in that room. He keeps the guys in tune and shows them how it's done, and how to be a professional athlete. Ya, that's my big dog right there. He's the boss of the room there."

Woodhead is in just his fourth NFL season. It wasn't too long ago that he was an undrafted fee agent who wasn't even invited to the NFL Combine.

He signed with the New York Jets in 2008 and spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. In 2009, Woodhead played in 10 games for the Jets, rushing for 64 yards on 15 carries, and making eight catches out of the backfield for 87 yards.

Once he was released by the Jets in September of 2010, the Patriots signed him four days later, just a day before New England's Week 2 game against those same Jets.

Now, Woodhead seems to be a constant option for the Patriots' offense, especially in critical third-down situations. And the 5-foot-8 running back seems to move the chains almost every time you ask yourself, "Why are they giving it to Woodhead on third down again?"

Woodhead's reliability on the field is something for any running back on the Patriots' roster to admire. But his coaches see Woodhead's off-the-field mentality as a major asset to a team with such a young, inexperienced backfield.

"I think it helps to have some senior leadership, a veteran guy," said Fears. "For young guys coming in, this is a different game. This is not the college game, this is a different game. So, it helps to have somebody around. You've got to remember, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were both here with Kevin Faulk and those guys last year, so, they got a chance to learn from those guys about little things about being a professional athlete. I mean, that's what it's all about. How you have to take care of your body, all the things that are important, off the field.

"None of those guys have a problem on the field," added Fears. "They practice, they play hard, but it's the little things they do off the field, that makes them successful, that gives them a chance for longevity in the league. Those are the things that they learn from the veteran guys."

And as Fears so adamantly and pleasantly points out, Woodhead is his "veteran guy".

"They watch him train," said Fears. "You've got to train off the field. You've got to prepare yourself to play. And they watch him study, and figure the importance of all those things. And those are a couple of things they have to figure out.

"These guys, they're used to everybody telling them everything to do. That doesn't happen anymore. They're men now. They're running their own life, you should say. So, they've got to make some decisions on their own, about what they're going to do off the field, in their free time. When they finish with us, at 3:30-4 o'clock in the afternoon, what are they doing? What are they doing? Man, that's the kind of stuff they have to learn from older guys. That's important."

For those who aren't in the Patriots team meetings or on the sidelines, it might be tough to grasp the fact that the seemingly soft-spoken Woodhead is such a leader amongst his peers. But in fact, he nearly defines the "Patriot Way".

Every answer he gives the media is as generic and by-the-book as you can possibly get. And given his history of being a Division II football player that's had to claw his way to the pros, it's clear that Woodhead is as humble as they come. Nothing has been handed to him. He's earned everything he's ever received in this game.

Now, in just his fourth full season in the league, he's giving back to a successful running corp that is clearly following his lead.

"What really opens their eyes is the success he's had on the field," said Fears. "That's what they're looking at. I mean, this guy's successful. He's not just on the bench. He's not watching the game. He's playing the game. They're saying, 'He's doing what I want to do, playing the game. So how's he get it done? That's what I want to do.'"

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
 

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Dimitroff, Pioli the first Belichick defectors to lead new team to Super Bowl

Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process. 

Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that. 

Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM. 

Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England. 

Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel. 

It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.