Love or hate the selection of a running back in the first round of the draft, Sony Michel has proven himself worthy of the pick.
So much so, in fact, that he just might be the most indispensable piece of the offense for the New England Patriots offense not named Tom Brady.
Don’t get it twisted, the Patriots will only go as far as Brady takes them. This is all a moot point if Brian Hoyer were to come in and defenses began stacking nine in the box. It’s a year in which Brady’s options at wide receiver and tight end come equipped with more uncertainty than ever before.
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Banking on a healthy Rob Gronkowski and the continued emergence of Josh Gordon presents the Patriots with the most upside, no doubt, but we’ve seen what can happen when overreliance on either option blows up in the offense’s face. Think Gronkowski’s season-ending injuries in 2012, 2013 and 2016 on the macro scale, or the four catches on 12 targets for Gordon in a 34-10 loss at Tennessee three weeks ago on the micro scale. Gronkowski reappeared on New England’s injury report on Thursday with those nagging ankle and back injuries.
Balance is key on any offense, and Michel himself can’t be counted on to be an old-school workhorse without the risk of another injury. Just last week against the Jets, his body was nearly snapped in two by Avery Williamson and Mike Pennel, an injury which caused him to miss a series before returning to finish with a career-best 133 rushing yards. And that’s before factoring in the knee issues which have plagued him since his college days at Georgia.
It’s now clear, however, that Michel is a game-changing presence for New England. In the eight games Michel has suited up, the Patriots are 4-0 when he tops 90 yards rushing and 1-3 when he doesn’t.
New England is 3-0 without Michel, although with minimal contributions from the running game. Cordarrelle Patterson is the only player who topped 4.0 yards per rush for the Patriots in any of their three games without Michel, when he had 61 yards on 11 carries in a 31-17 over the Packers. When the Patriots beat the Bills sans Michel, they produced only 76 yards on the ground – their second-lowest of the season and fewest in any of their eight wins.
Brady drives the boat, but even he needs a functioning running game for when the going gets tough. New England was 11-0 between 2015-17 when either Dion Lewis or LeGarrette Blount topped 90 yards rushing. You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find the last time the Patriots lost a game in which they had a rusher top 90 yards: Corey Dillon, tearing up the grass on the last game ever played at Gillette Stadium without turf.
In case you haven’t been keeping up to date with your clichés in 2018, it’s a passing league. Every legitimate Super Bowl contender not only has a quarterback at the top of their game at the moment, but at least one game-changing running back as well: Todd Gurley with the Los Angeles Rams, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram with the New Orleans Saints and Kareem Hunt with the Kansas City Chiefs. Throw in Melvin Gordon with the San Diego Chargers, James Conner with the Pittsburgh Steelers and even Zeke Elliott with the Dallas Cowboys – hey, they’re going to win the NFC East – and running backs still have their place on a true NFL juggernaut.
New England has running backs beyond Michel, of course. James White was probably the offensive MVP for the Patriots through the first half of the season, back when he was on pace to shatter the NFL’s record for most receptions by a running back. He had a brief injury scare as well against the Packers, and seems to be operating on somewhat of a “pitch count” in recent weeks. Rex Burkhead is expected to return this Sunday for the Patriots, though counting on his health moving forward is a risky proposition in its own right.
Neither White nor Burkhead possess Michel’s abilities to run between the tackles, nor are they built to withstand 20ish carries a game. Again, Michel might not be either with his health concerns, but there’s no other option at the moment.
The NFL is more pass-happy than ever before and New England still has the greatest quarterback of all-time, yet its postseason fortunes may well rest in the prowess of a rookie running back.
It’s scary to think where the Patriots would be had they not bucked conventional wisdom and passed on Michel in April. It’s scarier yet to think how early an exit they face in the postseason without him.