Sports

New England Patriots running backs undone by fumbling, injuries

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts/notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. RBs dropping the ball: Things were looking so good for Patriots running backs in the preseason that coaches Bill Belichick and Ivan Fears were asked by reporters about an “embarrassment of riches” at the position.

The outlook has shifted quickly.

Take out the “of riches,” and that aptly describes where things stand as New England (2-3) prepares for Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS). Patriots running backs have lost four fumbles this season, easily a league high according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Starter Damien Harris‘ two have been daggers, costing the team a chance at a season-opening win against the Miami Dolphins, and then taking a touchdown off the board last week against the Houston Texans. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson was benched for three games after his lost fumble in the opener, and second-year back J.J. Taylor was a healthy scratch last week after losing one in a game-turning play in Week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings are the only other teams whose running backs have lost multiple fumbles (two apiece). Thirteen teams have had a running back lose one fumble. That leaves 16 teams — half the NFL — with no lost fumbles from their running backs.

Fears, the veteran running backs coach now in his 31st NFL season and 25th with the Patriots, didn’t sugarcoat things this week when he said: “That’s our reputation right now. It’s going to take us all year to get that out of people’s mind.”

Six weeks ago, things looked so promising at running back the Patriots traded Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams. Belichick had referenced it as the type of situation any team wants to have — a surplus of good players.

They have since lost reliable “passing back” James White to a hip injury that is expected to be season-ending, could be without Harris on Sunday after he suffered an injury to his ribs in Houston, and haven’t been able to hold on to the ball consistently.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys (4-1) are one of the last teams that fumble-prone teams want to see. They have forced multiple turnovers in nine straight games, which ties for their second-longest such streak in franchise history. Their 12 takeaways — 10 interceptions, two fumble recoveries — are second in the NFL behind the Buffalo Bills (15).

It highlights one of the Patriots’ keys to victory and future success, which can be summed up in five words.

Hold. On. To. The. Ball.

2. Harris stayed behind: One sign that Harris might be limited against the Cowboys, or possibly not available at all, was that he didn’t return with the team after last Sunday’s win in Houston. Harris went to a local hospital after the game after being knocked out with an injury to his ribs, and traveled back to town separate from the team’s charter. Those decisions are often precautionary in nature from a medical standpoint, but also reflected the pain that Harris was managing.

3. Mac and Dak: Rookie quarterback Mac Jones‘ efficiency is one of the reasons the Patriots are optimistic about his growth and future success. He’s just the third quarterback since 1950 to have four games with a completion percentage of 70% in his first five starts. The others? The New York Jets‘ Chad Pennington (2002) and the quarterback who is on the opposite sideline Sunday — Dak Prescott of the Cowboys (2016).

Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, who leads the NFL in interceptions with six, isn’t surprised Jones has joined such company. He saw it when they were teammates at Alabama.

“He’s very smart. With him, you have to be careful because he can make all the throws,” Diggs said. “He comes from where I come from, so I know what type of person he is, what kind of heart he has.”

4. Folk’s knee: Veteran kicker Nick Folk‘s left knee injury — which has limited him in practice the past couple of weeks but hasn’t seemed to have a negative effect on him in games — is more than just a passing note. It was a factor in the club bringing kicker Riley Patterson back for a second workout Friday, and the expectation is that he will soon be added to the practice squad. Kickers aren’t often associated with toughness, but those close to Folk see how he’s gutting it out and the respect for him grows that much more.

5. Belichick and Brandt: Belichick said he was reviewing his notes on the Cowboys, and looking at them over a period of years, and what stood out was their high total of Pro Bowlers and a veteran personnel staff that has “over 500 years of NFL experience.” He added, for effect: “That’s five centuries. It’s amazing. This is not a young group [and] I say that respectfully because of the job they’ve done.”

Belichick’s respect traces to Gil Brandt, the longtime architect of Cowboys teams who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019. The respect is mutual.

“He didn’t have to do this, but I’m sitting on the stage in Canton, and all of a sudden someone taps my left shoulder. He’s behind the stage, and on a break, he comes by to say hello,” Brandt said. “I get notes from him a lot. They’re not typed notes, they’re handwritten notes. I’m always amazed by that.”

6. Revis’ recollections: Did cornerback Darrelle Revis enjoy his 2014 season in New England? “No. I did not,” Revis said on the “I Am Athlete” podcast. “You know, I’m happy for the grind and the hustle. Winning Super Bowl XLIX. But waking up every day, and walking into the facility and having to deal with the tension; you see why they’ve been to 10 Super Bowls … but at the end of the day, there’s other philosophies to win. It doesn’t have to be that way. When you deal with the things up there, it’s strenuous.”

7. Reporter’s perspective: For the first time this season, Belichick held an opponents videoconference with Dallas-area reporters. And Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy’s conference call with New England reporters was the first of its kind this year. Belichick seemed to like the changeup Friday, at one point complimenting a question. Then after Belichick talked about Dallas’ offensive tempo and the balance for a young cornerback between aggressiveness and patience, one of the Cowboys’ reporters reached out behind the scenes to say, “Covering Bill seems like such a good opportunity to learn about football.”

8. Devin’s motivation: On his “Double Coverage” podcast, veteran Patriots safety Devin McCourty said his performance last week was one of his all-time worst. Leadership starts with performance, and he said that’s what stings on a day like that. McCourty relayed part of a conversation he had with safeties coach Brian Belichick on the topic: “You set a standard as a player, you have to bring that every week. When you don’t, it creates a sense of urgency. You want to get back out there and put it behind you.”

9. McDaniels on scrutiny: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels understands why his playcalls are sometimes scrutinized (e.g. why so many screens in the red zone?!), and he takes no offense, saying he’s human and there’s no game in which every call is right despite his best intentions. He joked last week that he even gets grief at times from his wife, Laura. “The frustration,” he said with a smile, “I understand it.”

10. Did you know? This year marks the first time the Patriots have lost three straight home games under Belichick since 2000. The last time the Patriots lost more than three straight home games was 1993, when they had a five-game winless streak at then-Foxboro Stadium.

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