Belichick's comments deserve attention, not just because he’s seen so many running backs in his time in charge. But also, as so many of them have been vital to the team and had such success. In 2009 alone the Patriots had four different backs carry the ball for them. Including Fred Taylor, who only started one game but scored four rushing touchdowns on 63 attempts.
Antowain Smith was the Patriots running back in the early days of the Belichick era, starting 42 of 51 games in three seasons. But performance-wise he lagged behind one of the Patriots legends, Kevin Faulk. While their Patriots careers overlapped Faulk averaged 5.4 yards per touch compared to Smith’s 4.2. Obviously, Faulk was more of a situational back, so he received fewer touches. Although you could argue getting those yards on third down to keep a drive alive is trickier than gobbling up yards on first and second down.
Faulk’s partnership with Corey Dillon is probably more fondly remembered by current Patriots fans. Faulk played 180 games for the Patriots during his 12-year career, but longevity isn’t necessarily an indicator of skill. It’s production and Faulk averaged 6 yards per touch in the playoffs! That’s even better than the 5.6 yards he averaged during the regular season.
Stevenson averages 4.9 yards per touch over his career, but this season it’s just 4.4. Of course, Stevenson has suffered from the inconsistent play of the offense around him in 2023. And he’s had to cope with three different offensive coordinators in three seasons. So, in a way, Stevenson’s first two seasons deserve extra respect. But Faulk had to adapt to numerous changes too. He was a Patriot for 13 seasons. There were eight seasons when Faulk’s Patriots didn’t make the playoffs, but he still ended his career with three Super Bowl rings!
Corey Dillon was a second-round pick for the Bengals. He had an exceptional first 6 seasons in Cincinnati, including three games with more than 200 yards on the ground. But injuries eventually caught up with him and there were questions about his future. He only managed 541 yards as injury limited him to 11 starts in 2003. So, Dillon wasn’t exactly a slam dunk when Belichick traded for him. But he went on to score 39 touchdowns in three seasons as a Patriot. He didn’t end his career with a better average than Stevenson though. Dillon averaged 4.5 yards per touch on his 805 touches as a Patriot.
Sammy Morris might not be the best remembered back from Belichick’s tenure, but he was a successful one. He toured the AFC East somewhat, after being drafted by the Bills he signed for the Dolphins and after seven years in the league became a Patriot. It was the most productive chapter of his career. He averaged 5.1 yards per touch on his 383 in New England.
Another situational back who undoubtedly had an impact during his time with the Patriots is everyone’s favorite Chadron State alumni, Danny Woodhead. Like Morris, Woodhead spent three years in New England and, on a team that made the playoffs in all three of those years he averaged 8.3 yards per touch. The Patriots' offense was the best passing attack in the league in Woodhead’s first season. And second best in his second season (when Bill O’Brien was the offensive coordinator). And then fourth in his final season. Those were the days.
And it’s impossible to reminisce about Patriots running backs without mentioning James White. White spent all eight of his NFL seasons in New England. And five of those eight ended in the playoffs. He retired with two Super Bowl wins, including one he essentially stole from the Falcons' grasp. Who could forget the 3 touchdowns and the 2-point conversion he conjured up in Super Bowl LI? White averaged 6.6 yards per touch in the NFL.
An honorable mention should go to Rex Burkhead too. For not only reminding us how the Patriots haven’t really relied on an individual running back for a while. Even in 2016 when LeGarrette Blount recorded the Patriots’ last 1,000 rushing yard season, he only accounted for 62% of the carries. Last season Josh Jacobs handled 79.4% of the Raiders carries! But also, because he averaged 5.5 yards per touch as a Patriot. Burkhead’s career may have fizzled out in Houston, but he was very important in New England, on both special teams and the offense.
So, Stevenson is definitely one of the best Patriot backs in recent times, but he’s only started 10 of the 20 games that he’s been involved in. Whether Belichick misremembering how good some of his backs have been, or whether he’s just pumping Stevenson’s tires it’s a bit early to lavish praise on him. Maybe Bill is trying to accentuate one of the brighter areas of the 2023 Patriots? Before Sunday’s debacle against the Giants, the Patriots run game was ranked 13th in the league.
Most importantly Stevenson is only 25 and he will get even better, but if the Patriots don’t really shake things up in the offseason another team might be seeing his “good run skills”. A fourth offensive coordinator in four seasons might unlock this offense.