The running back position in today’s pro football is one of diminished importance: the NFL, due to a series of rule changes that caused schematic adaptations, has turned into a pass-first league. When value drops, however, opportunities to invest arise. For the New England Patriots, making such investments and taking chances in the running back position paid off big time recently, and played a key part in the team winning its sixth overall Super Bowl on Sunday.
Over the years and as other teams used their money on primary passing game contributors, New England quietly built one of the NFL’s best offensive backfields. Veteran running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and fullback James Develin have all had major contributions to the team’s success over the past few years — and 2018 was no different. Another player rose to prominence this season and especially stood out in the playoffs, though: Sony Michel.
His selection in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft raised quite a few eyebrows, particularly in a Boston sports radio landscape not exactly famous for its reasonable analysis. But despite dealing with injuries through training camp and into the first week of the regular season, the 31st player to hear his name called last April quickly established himself as the go-to ball carrier in New England’s offense.
During the regular season, Michel appeared in 13 contests and registered 209 carries for 931 yards and six touchdowns — solid numbers, especially on a per-game basis. The Georgia product’s best work, however, might very well have come in the postseason: running behind an outstanding offensive line, tight end group and fullback, Michel was able to rush for 242 yards and five touchdowns on 53 attempts through the divisional and championship round.
And against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53, the rookie added his crowning achievement. While his final stat-line might not have been quite as spectacular as some of the other numbers he put up this season — he ran for 94 yards on 18 handoffs — Michel continuously made plays and delivered especially when it counted the most, thus contributing mightily to his team winning the world championship.
For starters, he scored the game’s only touchdown when he found the end zone on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter. The score put New England up 10-3, and the pressure on a Rams offense that had pretty much been shut down through the game’s first 53 minutes. The unit failed to answer accordingly, as the Patriots continued their defensive domination and took the football away on a Stephon Gilmore interception.
However, the contest was not yet over and it was the Patriots’ turn to drain time off the clock with 4:17 still left in the game. In this situation, just like it did near the goal line, the team trusted Michel to deliver — and deliver he did. The rookie was handed the football on seven of eight plays on what turned out to be New England’s final non-kneel down possession, gaining a combined 41 yards and winding the game clock down to 1:16 by the time kicker Stephen Gostkowski took the field to make it a 13-3 game.
“He ran hard, broke some big runs when we needed it,” said quarterback Tom Brady about Michel’s performance after the conclusion of the Patriots’ sixth victory on the biggest stage in football. ”What an incredible rookie season he’s had — just so proud of him. He’s done an incredible job. Ran hard, got some tough yards. There wasn’t a lot of space at times but [he] fought his way through.“
Michel’s physical running and the trust it earned him, has now made him the first rookie in NFL history to score six times in a single postseason. Overall, he is only the ninth player in the league’s annals to score six times in a single playoff cycle. “It’s been quite the journey and I learned a lot this year,” said the 23-year old after the Super Bowl. “I can’t be more excited to win it with a team like this.”
“The offensive line did a tremendous job [on Sunday] and they did a tremendous job all year. James Develin, fullback, selfless guy, going out there to lay it on the line for his team and doing his job. Everybody just doing their job and being able to execute,” the rookie said about the teammates that helped him produce one of the more memorable first-year campaigns in Patriots franchise history.
Against the Rams, Michel ended it in the perfect fashion: by not only scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl but actually helping his team win a title. “There’s no better feeling than winning the Super Bowl.”