Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO – From Sept. 7 through Oct. 5 – a span of five games – Dion Lewis touched the ball 26 times. In total.

He was becoming, it seemed, the Patriots “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” back. Or, perhaps, a back they worried would break like glass if they used him too much.

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The jaw-dropping array of power, step-backs, jump-cuts and stutter-steps in a nine-game stretch in 2015 seemed another career. The blown ACL suffered against the Redskins in Week 9 of 2015 cost him half of 2016. He came back last year. He was fine, but he wasn’t like he was. It was easy to wonder if he ever would be.

Was he a little football Icarus? Did he fly too close to the sun in those nine electrifying games? Would ACLs under tree-trunk thighs inside his stubby little legs be able to again take the torque he put on them? It took two surgeries to get him fixed before. What did he lose on the operating table? What did he lose mentally in terms of being able to cut loose?

Then James White ascended. And Rex Burkhead came aboard. And Mike Gillislee, too.

Lotta backs. Lotta backs.

The Patriots knew Lewis might be disconcerted by all the company and let him know in the offseason, “We have a role for you.” Still, being in mothballs through Columbus Day was not pleasant.

And Lewis said that to NBCSports Boston’s Mike Giardi in October.

 

“It’s tough,” he acknowledged then when asked about the lack of touches. “But I just come every day and try to work hard like I always do. My time will come. I know what type of player I am so I’m not down. My teammates know what type of player I am. I will get my chance and then I’ll show what I can do but I don’t have control over that. The only thing I can control is hard I work.” 

Lewis was right. His time has come. Sunday, in the season finale with all the other regular backs injured (ironically), Lewis carried the ball 26 times. Same number of times he touched it – through handoffs or passes – in the first five games. He caught another six passes. He scored a touchdown on the ground and through the air for the second game in a row.

Lewis handled the ball 61 times the past two games and had a rushing touchdown in each of the past three games when the Patriots were in the process of sewing up home field throughout the AFC playoffs.

After running it just 19 times in the first five games, he led the team in carries (180 – Gillislee’s 104 was next), yards (896) and rushing touchdowns (six).

Is it heresy to say that, on an offense with two Hall of Fame-caliber players, it was Lewis that kind of put the Patriots on his back the past two weeks? I don’t think so.

Regardless how we ought to divvy up credit, nobody gave more than Lewis. And everybody notices.

“Dion works really hard,” Bill Belichick said after the win that pushed the Patriots to 13-3. “He always has. [When] we signed him, he was coming off of not a lot of production (note...984 days between regular-season carries) and really earned his way. He’s earned everything he’s gotten, like everybody has, but he’s earned it. He’s gotten opportunities. He’s faced some setbacks along the way, but he’s always been pretty resilient. He’s had a great attitude. I think I’m certainly happy for it, but everybody is happy for the success that he’s had because of the way that he’s worked and the way that he competes. He’s given us that for basically every day that he’s been here.”
Walking from player to player, asking the ones who might know Lewis about him and there’s a sense of pride expressed.

“You’ve got to see this guy work every day,” said Matt Slater. “Rehab, stretching, lifting, recovery. I’ve seen it. Some guys when they rehab, they have days they aren’t into it. They’re late. They don’t go all in. I never saw that with him. Every day, he pushed. Squatting, running – he had to fight his way back and he had to fight that stigma of being a little guy. He always says, ‘I may be little but I’m not small.’ That’s very appropriate for Dion. He wants the ball in his hands. He loves the ball in his hands. The guy is special.

 

“What amazes me most is that he was out of football [in 2013 and 2014],” Slater added. “I don’t understand how that happens. Credit our scouting department and Coach Belichick for finding him because this kid is unbelievable. The work ethic he’s shown since he’s been here is really what jumped out to me. He’s been through a lot since he’s been here. Everything he’s been through he’s come back stronger not just physically but mentally. It’s just so much fun to watch him run the football.

Rob Gronkowski, who’s had to battle through the mental and physical desert of injuries and rehabs, has a particular appreciation for Lewis.
“I say all the time, he’s a beast. I’ve seen it all, all he’s gone through. He’s an inspiring player, whether he makes guys miss or runs them over, he is amazing.”

There have been no victory laps from Lewis. Aside from him being a little more outgoing when media’s around, he’s the same guy he was when he got here two years ago. The quiet assuredness he showed in 2015 when his electric style was still new remains.

“I’m a very confident person,” he said. “I know what type of player I am and I know what I’m capable of doing. Nothing surprises me. It may surprise you guys but I been doing this since I was six, running the same way, playing the same style my whole life. This is just who I am.”

You wouldn’t have to look hard to find players in the league that would have played the “disrespect” card if they had their role reduced like Lewis did. They’d wonder openly why they had to prove themselves again and again. Lewis, to his credit, loves that process.

“Some people say I got a little man complex,” he said, “but I’m definitely out there to prove myself every chance I get. Any player, any game he’s out there he’s trying to prove what kind of player and what kind of person he is.”

Finishing the season with a workhorse flourish has been another cup of “Shut the flock up” gently served by Lewis. Those of us who didn’t think Lewis could handle a lead back workload were proven wrong.

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