The best team ever? Maybe not. The most potent offense of all-time? Debatable. Super Bowl XLII champions? Probably.
The fact sheet on the Patriots greatness has been written in the blood of the reports who've been slurping them all year long. The knocks, however scarce they may be, have leaked through to the back pages and focus on the perceived ineptitude of their rushing attack.
While the trend among several powerhouse NFL franchises (Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New England) has shifted in favor of passing to set up the run, a good tailback is still essential for anyone claiming to be a contender. Firstly, because it helps protect leads and shorten games, and secondarily because the cold playoff weather changes the scope and dynamics of your offensive game planning. The playoffs, which start in the dreaded winter season, cause havoc on the skill positions that are heavily relied upon to put points on the board. So when passing becomes more challenging due to the elements, you typically hand the ball off to your stalwart running back and hope your offensive line can manufacture some holes. It's this very factor that many mainstream talking heads have deemed New England's biggest liability and potential Achilles heel, as it is suggested that they've yet to demonstrate the ability to rush the ball with desirable proficiency.
Once again Bill Belichick has outsmarted the observers of the game; those whose job description includes accurate analysis of these critical parameters of victory (a group that also includes the 14 opposing coaching staffs his team has trampled this year). New England can run boys and girls, but heres the rub: Belichick just doesn't want them to, and for good reason.
Once the rosters are set, an NFL coaches ability to asses and exploit strategic advantages over their opponent is the primary determinate of their teams success. When two great field generals (in this case, the Coaches) face off in battle, they all plan based on the most likely course(s) of action of their opponents, it's game theory, and an extension of the Art of War. However, the best of the great generals forces their opponents into defending an attack that will never be launched through deception. The best generals attack formlessly, for the formless cannot be predicted, anticipated, nor defended, thus making it the clearest and most reliable path to victory. Only a fool fights battles he cannot win, and Belichick ensures through meticulous calculation that his team has the best chance to win every Sunday.
When breaking down the numbers, the strategy issued by Coach Belichick becomes increasingly well illustrated and transparent. Their current lead running back, Lawrence Maroney, was the secondary ball carrier last year, although he was impressive behind Corey Dillon who carried a mere 24 more times than Maroney in 2006. With Dillon out of the picture for the 2007 season, Maroney was promoted into the #1 tailback role. Enter Belichicks' genius.
It follows sound intuition that one might want to keep a pivotal piece of your championship puzzle rested and healthy, of course while brilliantly doing so not at the expense of Maroneys' learning and maturation processes. As the numbers show, Maroneys' mileage is nearly identical to his successful rookie campaign with total carries projected at only 4 greater (175 v. 179), while average yards/carry remains within 0.1(4.3 v. 4.2). Surprising are these figures given New England's pass-heavy offense, which effectively creates an average of about 4 less rushing opportunities per game. Even in the absence of the necessity to run, Belichick has quietly managed to get Maroney his essential carries in lieu of wearing him out deleteriously, all the while infatuating their defensive opposition with game planning for the Patriots lethal aerial attack.
Not only is the confidence of a young rusher effectively nurtured by these tactics, but Belichick has ensured optimal health and energy levels in highly valued, highly physical skill player. With a well rested, but battle-tested Maroney in the backfield come January, the elements will not sway the Patriots dominance, but facilitate it. Either the opposition stuffs the box to stop the climate-dependent running game, thus opening up the secondary for the pass, or they rush the passer conservatively and allow Maroney to run all over the field on them. This is the formless attack that Belichick has designed perfectly from game one. He has earned the distinction of greatness for reasons such as these – well, and that dynasty he's orchestrated in New England over the past decade.
To further recount the ways that Belichick has groomed the Patriots for greatness would result in a long-winded almanac deservedly set to music, featuring both food service and an interlude. He may not be charismatic and friendly, nor talkative or honest, but in the management of his on field personnel he has repeated proven his aptitude as an elite field general and strategic luminary. Look for Maroney to hog the ball in the second half of New England's playoff games, especially if they've got a lead on the frosty tundra of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Enjoy as the Patriots steamroll to 19-0 and a Super Bowl ring on the back of their reliable, rested and game-ready running back – err, and that Tom Brady guy, I've heard he's having an alright year.