The Patriots have at least six games remaining in the 2018 season.
Whether they can add a game or two to that total and get to the Conference Championship and/or Super Bowl largely depends on their running game. And their running game depends on two players who – while talented – aren’t durable.
I almost feel badly saying that about Sony Michel. The kid came back Sunday from having his head pulled back to his heels and still closed out the win over the Jets with a flourish.
But facts is facts. The knee, ankle and forearm injuries he dealt with in college, the ominous reports of a “bone-on-bone” knee condition prior to the draft, the knee injury that sidelined him through preseason and the knee injury that came against the Bears, all of it underscores that Michel – for all his talent – will probably be dealing with something down the stretch.
If and when he does, the Patriots will turn to Rex Burkhead. Monday, the Patriots activated Burkhead from IR. He’s been out with a neck injury suffered against Detroit in Week 3.
Since signing with the Patriots as a free agent prior to 2017, Burkhead’s played in 15 of a possible 29 games.
Can the Patriots take two injury-prone guys, meld them together and hitch their wagon to them? If you like this team, then you have to hope so.
NFL running back is a dangerous job. Injuries are inevitable. The only way they can be mitigated is by slicing the workload.
When available, the Patriots have ridden Michel fairly hard. Four of the eight games he’s played he’s had more than 18 carries, three times he’s been over 20. He had one game in his final two years at Georgia where he carried more than 20 times.
The Patriots are giving him the ball because they have to. Their backup between-the-tackles runner has become wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. James White is a change-up back and too valuable in the passing game to be running into the middle of a defensive line on short yardage.
They’ve patched it together well enough to win seven of eight – and that shouldn’t be undervalued – but it’s not sustainable.
That’s why Burkhead’s return is so valuable. The talent is obviously there. He showed it with Cincinnati down the stretch in 2016.
Before November 27 of that season, Burkhead – a sixth-round pick out of Nebraska - was a special-teamer/garbage-time player. He’d had 13 carries in the 31 games he was active. He just didn’t get on the field.
But when the lead backs in Cincy -- Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard -- got dinged just about two years ago, the Bengals turned to Burkhead. Over the final six games, he carried 68 times for 305 yards including 27 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns in the 2016 season finale in his only start.
I feel like I’ve mentioned that game almost as much as the Snow Bowl.
And that’s because it’s the lone performance arguing that Burkhead can carry the load as a between-the-tackles back with superior pass-catching skills.
It’s, in part, what led the Patriots to sign him to a one-year deal in 2017 and put him at the top of the depth chart, drawing the ire of Dion Lewis. It’s, in part, what led them to re-sign Burkhead to a three-year, $9M deal this past offseason, drawing the further ire of Dion Lewis who – snubbed for a lucrative deal here – went and signed with Tennessee for four years and $19M.
Lewis said the Patriots “went cheap” in passing him over. The implication is that Burkhead and Jeremy Hill (remember him?) were the cheap options and that he could have given them more.
Lewis isn’t exactly Cal Ripken but right now, his point is well-made. Hill – who looked terrific in the preseason until he blew out his ACL – couldn’t make a contribution. Burkhead’s been on the field for nine quarters.
Now, though, Burkhead’s got a chance for rebuttal.
More important, he’s got a chance to take carries from Michel, touches from White and Julian Edelman in the passing game and generally just be the added hands and legs that can lighten the load for everyone.
If everything goes to the Patriots plan, the snow will be piled deep and the year will be a couple of weeks old and we’ll be writing about Burkhead’s invaluable contributions down the stretch.
He’s got to buck some recent history to make that happen.
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