We've heard it many times before. It gets repeated so frequently that it's become a regional sports cliche that barely registers anymore: The Patriots are a game-plan offense.
And they are. When they like their matchups running the football, they'll run the football. When the short-to-intermediate passing game is what suits them best, they'll do that.
But make no mistake, they'll typically roll with the latter plan of attack. Especially when Tom Brady isn't serving a four-game suspension to start the regular season. Given his skill set, and given the weapons he has around him, the team thrives when medium-range passes are put on the money.
Sometimes that comes at the expense of consistency in the running game. Last season, the Patriots were tied for 25th in the league in terms of rushing attempts.
This year? Different story.
Through three weeks -- unless the Falcons choose to run it more than 50 times in their Monday night matchup with the Saints -- the Patriots have called more running plays than any other club in the league. Their 108 attempts is seven better than the 101 Dallas has run, and New England lead back LeGarrette Blount leads the NFL in carries with 75, one more than Houston's Lamar Miller.
It's been a drastic change for a team that typically likes to chuck it.
In Week 1, against a talented Cardinals secondary, Blount carried 22 times, which was more than he had carried in any game in 2015 save for a win over the Redskins when he saw a career-high 29 attempts. In Week 2, he matched that career-high when the team needed him to step up following Jimmy Garoppolo's shoulder injury, running for 123 yards and a score. Then in his most impressive performance of the young season, with rookie Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, Blount took the ball 24 times against the Texans, scored twice, and averaged 4.38 yards per carry. And the 6-foot, 250-pounder did it on just three days' rest.
"We really needed it in both games," coach Bill Belichick said on Monday. "LeGarrette has a lot of skill, as we know. I mean, he’s a big back that has very good quickness, and feet, and balance and speed for that size. So, we just kind of always feel like if we can just get a hole, get him started, get him going that he has a lot of ability to make yards on his own if we can just get him going, get him downhill, and get him some space to run.
"He has done a good job with it. He has broken tackles. He has run through some arm tackles and things like that. He has gotten some good, tough yards for us. Hopefully we continue to do that. Hopefully we can continue to get him the ball with some momentum, some space, and give him an opportunity to do some things on his own and not have to deal with four or five guys there at the line of scrimmage but try to get him going.
"He has worked hard, he’s in good condition, he has done a good job of gaining yards in the fourth quarter and at the end of the game. He hasn’t gotten worn down in those situations so that’s all been very positive and we needed it."
Belichick recognized Blount's work, and the work of the blockers in front of Blount, during his postgame address on Thursday night. "We talked about that running game breaking open in the fourth quarter," Belichick said, beaming.
Blount is averaging 25 carries per game, which is 9.5 more than his previous career-high, which he recorded back when he was a rookie for the Buccaneers in 2010, and 11.2 more than his average last year. Despite the workload, and despite the fact that he's almost 30 and coming off of a season-ending hip injury suffered last year, he's looked fresh.
Particularly late in games, Blount has been relied upon heavily as the Patriots have worked to maintain possession and salt away the clock. Against the Cardinals, he had a critical third-down run that helped set up Stephen Gostkowski's game-winning field goal.
"He’s had a number of games in his career here with us that he’s really done a nice job of carrying the ball a few times and to be able to do that four days apart, that’s always a tougher issue when you carry it a lot," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "And then come back and do it in the same week, four days apart, that’s not easy to do. He does a good job of taking care of his body and trying to get himself ready to go each week, learn the game plan and get ready to go when his number is called.
"He’s been in there a lot this year. He’s carried the ball, he’s pass protected, he’s been involved in the passing game a little bit, so he does a lot of different things. Some show up in the stat sheets, some don’t, but we’ve certainly counted on him a lot and he came through for us again on Thursday night."
Drew Bledsoe’s being asked to reminisce a lot this fall. And not exactly about fuzzy, feel-good topics that warm the heart.
Instead, it’s reminiscing about 2001, the year his heart got lacerated and he was replaced for good by Tom Brady, who went on to win a Super Bowl. Or about 2006 when -- as Cowboys quarterback -- he got yanked in favor or Tony Romo and never got back in.
This being the 15th anniversary of SB36 has caused Bledsoe’s phone to ring. And the Brady-Jimmy Garoppolo-Jacoby Brissett dance early this season has brought to the fore discussion of the Brady succession plan, especially now that it appears both players aren’t going to be disasters. How is this situation similar to the one in 2001? Meanwhile, the emergence of Dak Prescott in Dallas puts the oft-injured Romo in more immediate peril of losing his job.
In the past few days, Bledsoe’s opened up to both Albert Breer of MMQB and Michael Silver of NFL Media about the emotions of getting bumped and -- with Breer especially --– the depth he goes into discussing the situation and his emotions then and now are kind of moving.
If you think you’ve heard it all before -- and I believed I had -- you probably haven’t. The seriousness of Bledsoe’s 2001 injury was not exaggerated, as he explains in an anecdote. He acknowledges feeling entitled to a degree and admits to being bitter about the way he’s recalled.
“One thing I do bristle at a little bit is, I feel like there’s too much of me and Wally Pipp (the Yankees first baseman famously replaced by Lou Gehrig who never got his job back and birthed the verb “Pipped” for anyone who missed a day and got replaced),” Bledsoe told Breer. “I was the single-season passing leader for three organizations when I left. Unfortunately, Tommy’s been so damn good that people sometimes forget I had a pretty nice career.”
Speaking with Silver regarding Romo-Prescott, Bledsoe plumbed his experience with Brady and Bill Belichick in 2001.
"When you're young in the league -- when you're young in life -- you think you're 10-foot tall and bulletproof," said Bledsoe. "You think nobody can ever replace you, and that you're gonna be the guy forever. Eventually, you learn the lesson that it's a replacement business. Sometimes that hits you right between the eyes, which is what happened to me with [Tom] Brady, and again with Tony.
"It happens to all of us. I don't know if it's the time for Tony, but it's something that every quarterback has to confront."
In less than a week, Brady -- the best quarterback in NFL history in the minds of many -- will be back from his suspension. He will have seen in a month’s time that the NFL train rolls along without him and that, while he could never be cloned, he can be capably replaced.
Brady, because of the way he ascended to the job and the friends he’s seen get taken behind the barn in New England, has always been open about understanding he could be replaced. But now he’s got concrete evidence.
Said Bledsoe: "In our heart of hearts, we all want to feel indispensible. We all want to believe, 'There's no way the team can succeed without me.' Then you see the team going on, and winning with a young guy playing the position, and playing it well, and you do some soul searching . . . and you start to think, 'Maybe the team's gonna make that decision to move on.'
"You always want the team to do well, but it's hard. It can be [awkward]. Tommy and I are still good friends, and I text with Romo once in awhile . . . but it's hard to love 'em if they've got your job and you want it back."
Please read both.