NEW ORLEANS – Perhaps there is no bigger circus in the all of sports than the NFL annual Media Day at the Super Bowl. Both teams participated in it today with the Patriots going first in the morning followed shortly after by the Rams.
With thousands of media types from all over the country – ranging in status from Sports Illustrated, to the Rosie O'Donnell Show to Nickelodeon – the players put on their uniforms and are bombarded from all sides. Some of the questions actually pertained to Sunday's Super Bowl ad the Patriots ability to run the football in an effort to control the clock and keep the high-powered Rams offense on the sideline.
The fact that possibility exists in New England is almost as remarkable as the Patriots being here in the first place. When Drew Bledsoe went down with a chest injury in Week Two, the whole face of the offense changed.
And it wasn't just the face of the quarterback. Tom Brady entered the picture and did a great job of managing the clock and moving the team efficiently. But no longer was Bledsoe's strong right arm the focal point in New England. Suddenly, focus changed to Antowain Smith and the Patriots running game.
"It's a dramatic difference," center Damien Woody said. "We always rode Drew and his ability to get us out of jam after jam for years and now our team has changed. We're run first now. We don't rely on the pass and that's really a big change in New England. You have to credit the guys up front for that, being able to open up holes for Antowain.
"I think you also have to credit Bill and Scott Pioli for bringing in the right blend of guys that fit into the mold of the team and (offensive line) Coach (Dante) Scarnecchia for getting this group together. The players in general have put in a lot of hard work and asserted themselves and got the running game going."
The transformation has been pretty amazing considering when the season began with it appeared the team would once again be reliant on Bledsoe. But part of the reason for that was the injury troubles that hit the offensive line in training camp. Only right tackle Greg Robinson-Randall avoided missing any time and the lack of cohesion up front led to a sporadic running attack.
But it wasn't just injuries that prevented the Patriots transformation to a smashmouth team. In order to play that style, a team needs a big, power runner and Kevin Faulk and J.R. Redmond didn't fit that category. Enter Smith, who was picked off the scrap heap when Buffalo let him go in the offseason.
He slowly worked his way to the top of the Patriots running back depth chart and his emergence coincided with the offensive line's improved health. Once those two pieces were in place, the philosophy of the Patriots offense changed – or at least it changed to what Head Coach Bill Belichick preferred.
"When I took my visit here and (offensive coordinator) Charlie Weis and Bill sat me down and talked about what their plans were they just fit into exactly how we played this season," fullback Marc Edwards said. "We're going to get a bunch of guys that love to play football and play hard every down and we're going to roll with that. They followed their plan to a T and it's worked.
"In the preseason I was back there with J.R. a little and Kevin Faulk a little and with Antowain. When they finally settled in on Antowain we got back there and got into a rhythm and started communicating better. Coming out of the huddle, we're always talking. That's one of the things I learned when I was out in San Francisco playing with Garrison [Hearst] and Terry Kirby – they were experienced and we always talked in the backfield and got on the same page. Antowain and I have developed that chemistry as well."
With so many new components in the running game, it's no wonder it took a while for things to click. Rookie Matt Light stepped in at left tackle while Robinson-Randall took over the right side in just his second year. Belichick smartly wanted to help the youngsters by having experienced veterans Mike Compton and Joe Andruzzi line up alongside at the guard spots. The two have a combined 14 years of NFL experience.
"We've come a long way really," Light said. "The beginning of the year was rocky and then it got a little bit better and we had a few bumps and bruises along the way. I think we're a lot more confident now and we understand each other a lot better. Maybe not completely, but that goes a long way in trying to solidify a line and get things going the way you want because it's hard to get a running game going. Once we established that it was easy to try to keep it going."
Once the lineup was settled, with the guys up front healthy and Smith and Edwards settling into starting roles in the backfield, the results have been dramatic. Smith rushed for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns. He had four 100-yard games and all came from Week Eight on, showing the time it took for the running game to click. In the first seven games, he ran for more than 75 yards just once (94 in Brady's starting debut against Indy) and topped 50 yards just two other times.
"It was a natural process of getting to know each other but it also was a lot of guys giving effort," Light said. "Look at the way Antowain runs. You can't really describe how the guy runs over players and makes plays. Even if we miss blocks the guy has the heart and effort to get it done."
The Patriots will need to show some that progress on the round on Sunday to keep the ball away from Kurt Warner and the Rams talented receivers. In the first meeting, Smith carried the ball only 15 times for 36 yards and had a key fumble near the goal line. This time the burden will fall on the guys up front and Smith to control the clock.
If Smith accomplishes that goal, the Patriots just may make the third time the charm in The Big Easy.