Young Patriots running backs learning from veteran Woodhead

Young Patriots running backs learning from veteran Woodhead
November 1, 2012, 8:08 pm
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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.'"