Maroney searching for his role in Patriots' success

Douglas Flynn

This was supposed to be Laurence Maroney's year.

The second-year running back split carries with veteran Corey Dillon during his rookie campaign, as he was eased into the NFL fray with Dillon sharing the workload - and sharing a bit of advice whenever needed.

But Dillon departed this offseason, leaving Maroney poised to take over the Patriots' feature back role. Or so he thought.

Instead, the 2006 first-round pick found himself once again splitting carries, this time with new arrival Sammy Morris. They formed an effective tandem for the first three weeks until Maroney was sidelined with a groin injury.

Maroney was in line for another opportunity when he returned after Morris was lost for the year with a chest injury, but had just six carries at Buffalo two weeks ago. Last week against Philadelphia he had 10 (for 31 yards), but didn't even get on the field in the first half against the Eagles.

The lack of activity has frustrated the young back, who pines for a chance to get off the pine and become a bigger part of the Pats' offense. But the 22-year-old is also showing some significant maturity in how he's handled the situation.

“It is what it is,” Maroney said this week. “I'd like to do a lot of things more, but you know, it ain't needed for me right now. Like I say all the time, my time will come.”

Maroney, who has just two receptions this year (both against Washington), has found himself displaced by Kevin Faulk (30 catches, 258 yards, TD) on passing plays and fullback Heath Evans (31 carries, 118 yards, 2 TDs) in short-yardage situations. Maroney feels he could contribute in those areas, but understands the roles each back needs to play.

“It ain't that I couldn't,” he said. “I could be in all sorts of plays, but Kevin is our passing guy. He's that situational part of the team. Kevin is the passing running back, so when we're in a passing formation, Kevin is the guy. ... Laurence is the running guy; Kevin is the passing guy. We know our roles.”

Maroney does lead the team in rushing with 467 yards on 105 carries (4.4 average), but being the running guy doesn't always create a ton of opportunities in this offense. With Tom Brady on pace to shatter virtually every passing record in the book and no opposing defense able to slow, let alone stop, that aerial attack, sometimes the ground game has taken a back seat. That's what left Maroney a spectator in the first half last week.

“We had the ball three times in the first half, we took it down the field and scored three touchdowns every time,” explained coach Bill Belichick. “One of them got called back (on a penalty). We were in a proactive mode, we were moving the ball (so we) stayed with it.”

Staying on course

That could be the case again tomorrow night in Baltimore (ESPN, 8:30 p.m.), where the Ravens are ranked third in the league against the run and haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in an NFL-best 14 straight games, but are just 15th against the pass. Still, Baltimore coach Brian Billick has a healthy respect for New England's ground game.

"As I understand it, they are getting a little grief, if you can imagine, for not running the ball more - like they can't (run the ball)," Billick said. "They run when they want to run and they throw when they want to throw." 

They've done a lot more throwing, but despite the lack of activity at times, the Patriot coaches insist they're staying with Maroney when they need yards on the ground.

“We have the same expectations for Laurence, but his role is determined on a weekly basis as pretty much the way the rest of our skill players are," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said last week. "If it's a game where he should carry it 25 times, or more, or less then that's what it's going to be. If it's more of a passing game and it's a play-action game, then he might not touch the ball quite as many times in the running game."

Last Sunday, Maroney's role wasn't large, but it ended up being vital. While Brady has tossed 39 touchdown passes, it wasn't until the 10th game of the season that Maroney found the end zone against Buffalo. By that time, 18 other Patriots had already scored TDs.

But trailing 28-24 midway through the fourth quarter against the Eagles, it was Maroney's number that McDaniels called, and Maroney responded by battling into the end zone from 4 yards out with what proved the winning TD.

“It made me feel they feel they got a little faith in me,” Maroney said. “I couldn't let them down. It was a good play. The line did an excellent job of blocking. It wasn't no walk-in, but as a running back you've got to be able to make a couple people miss.”

Answering the critics

Maroney has had to fend off almost as critics as tacklers in his brief career. His durability has been a frequent source of questions, as he missed a pair of games last year, three early this season with a groin injury and left the game at Buffalo with a foot ailment. McDaniels was quick to dismiss those claims.

“I think that's something that everybody goes through,” he said. “It just so happens that he's had a couple of them here this year and then coming off his injury last year. I think he's a durable player that's had some unfortunate things happen to him. I'm not worried about him not being there. I think he's a tough guy, a tough player. He'll play injured. He'll play with a bump or a bruise and we would expect that of him and I think he expects that of himself. I wouldn't say that's a concern of mine for Laurence.”

Maroney's running style, however, has elicited some concerns.

"I thought early in the season he was not running very well, as far as the style, the downhill, hit-the-hole-and-go," said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski in a conference call this week. "I think he has a tendency to always look for the big, explosive play, even when it's not there. I like guys that are bounce runners that do look for that big play, but you have to have a feeling, an intuition that if nothing is there, lower your head down and sometimes a good play is getting 2 or 3 yards. I thought early in the season, he was a little too often looking for that big play."

But Jaworski did credit Maroney for improving his approach, theorizing that he had perhaps learned from watching the straight-ahead style of Morris.

"When Sammy Morris came in, I thought Sammy, from a style of running - he is certainly not the overall capability and quality of a runner as a Laurence Maroney - but he gave them that kind of downhill style that seemed to fit what they were trying to do in the running game," Jaworski said. "I think possibly when Laurence was watching Sammy, he was (saying) 'hey, maybe that's the style they want, maybe that's what fits with our style of blocking.' Now maybe he did adapt."

It's been a season full of adaptations for Maroney, who continues to struggle to find his role on a team that's rolling toward history.

“A roller coaster, up and down, you know,” said Maroney when asked to sum up his season to this point. “You've got the good times and the bad, but just stay patient and stay focused.”

Douglas Flynn covers the Patriots for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or dflynn@cnc.com.