By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (CBS) — Save for a very tiny minority of players, job security does not exist in the NFL. At the position of running back, job security really does not exist.
Not when you’re oft-injured and undersized, and when most personnel men only envision you as a third-down scatback. Not when you’re on the active roster for just three games in your rookie year after you were drafted in the fourth round. And not when you’re an underutilized back who is buried on the depth chart and contributes more on special teams than offense.
When you come from backgrounds like that, you tend to look out for yourself above all else. How could you not? Your livelihood depends on it, and if you don’t produce, your lifelong dream and be cut short in a hurry. But this year, the Patriots have something special working in their backfield.
They have Dion Lewis, who nearly quadrupled his career-high in rushing yards just in time for a big free-agent contract. They have James White, who signed a new deal after his historic Super Bowl performance and contributed consistently. And they have Rex Burkhead, who entered the season with four total touchdowns in his previous four NFL seasons before scoring eight touchdowns in just 10 games with New England.
It is a rare situation, one that cannot last for long. But for the time being, the chemistry is perfect in the running backs room.
“It’s a healthy competition, for sure,” said Burkhead. “We know what our roles are and we understand that whenever our number gets called, we need to make plays. It’s not a selfish thing at all. We’re all very unselfish. It’s a very competitive backfield, but if any guy is making a play out there, scoring a touchdown, we’re the first there to congratulate each other.”
Together, the Lewis-Burkhead-White trio rushed for 1,331 yards and 11 touchdowns on the year. In a limited role, Mike Gillislee plunged for five touchdowns on just 104 carries. But what really makes the Patriots’ running backs special is their impact in the passing game. With Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks always drawing extra attention from defenses, with Danny Amendola occasionally bottled up, and with Chris Hogan missing half the year with an injury, the presence of reliable backs to catch the ball out of the backfield has been immense to the Patriots’ success.
Together, the Lewis-Burkhead-White trio caught 118 passes for 897 yards and nine touchdowns. It’s an impressive sum, but the fact that it comes from a rotating crew helps ensure that a fresh back is on the field at all times and the fact that defenses struggle to adjust to mid-drive substitutions work to help make the Patriots’ offensive attack dynamic.
It also helps each running back, knowing that one mistake, one fumble or a few wasted snaps will lead to some time on the sideline, where there’s nothing to do but lament those errors.
“As a football player, you always want to be competitive and you always want to be out there,” Lewis said. “But at the same time, it’s about the team. You’ve gotta put the team first. And we’ve got one more game left, and nobody really cares about your stats. Everybody just wants to get the win.”
Nobody’s been a closer witness to the situation than fullback James Develin, who’s quietly been a major factor in the success of the offense, albeit in a greatly unheralded role.
“I’ve said it a million times, man. I’m a lucky guy to be able to block for these guys,” Develin said. “Because we’ve got a great stable of backs, they all get along so well and they have a lot of fun with it. I’m just happy and proud to see all the success and what they’ve been able to accomplish on the football field this year. It’s really cool, man, because we’ve got really five guys — including Brandon Bolden — that can all play the position so well, and they bring a different element, each of them. But man, I’m a lucky guy to be in front of those guys.”
The ever-present reality in the NFL is that no job is secure, and Develin knows that well. He played in the Arena Football League and the now-defunct United Football League before joining the Bengals practice squad in 2010 and getting cut in 2012. He joined the Patriots’ practice squad after that, worked his way onto the 53-man roster, and he’s gone on to contribute to two Super Bowl wins with the chance for a third.
He knows how hard it is to even get an NFL job, let alone keep one. And he knows his fellow backs share somewhat similar backgrounds, which has helped prevent any selfishness from ruining what has been working.
“This game is a tough one. And I think everyone has a great level of respect for each other,” Develin said. “We know that this game is tough, and what it takes to perform it. So we’re all each other’s fans out there, man. We want everyone to go out there and do well, especially on our team. It’s what we’re all out here to do.”
As this forthcoming Super Bowl is concerned, the ground game is unlikely to play a large factor for either team. The Eagles had arguably the best pass defense in the NFL, which should make life difficult on the ground for New England. But the Philadelphia duo of Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount has run for just 3.5 yards per carry through two postseason games. It’s not looking like a game that will feature a lot of running.
But that doesn’t mean the Patriots’ running backs won’t be stars. Tom Brady relied heavily on Shane Vereen to win Super Bowl XLIX, with White’s predecessor catching 11 passes for 64 yards in that comeback win over the Seahawks. Two years later, it was White himself playing a significant Super Bowl role, catching 14 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown. His rushing totals were meager — 29 yards on six carries — but he scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime from the 2-yard line. Factor in his two-point conversion run, too, and there’s little doubt that White was the most valuable player not named Brady in the unbelievable comeback win over the Falcons.
And with Philadelphia likely so focused on Gronkowski, Cooks, Amendola and Hogan, the opportunity should be there for these backs to find themselves in one-on-one situations against linebackers. They’ve proven time and time again this season to be up for the task.
It’s never possible for anybody on the outside to properly predict which of the backs will get the most opportunities. And the backs themselves often don’t even know.
“Just be ready for the moment,” White said. “You never know how the game’s going to go, how it’s going to unfold. I think we have a lot of different guys that are versatile, that know their roles on this team, and they just try to excel at that.”
For now, they’re just collectively staying prepared, knowing that their Super Bowl moment could be just days away.