The lineage pre-dates Tom Brady’s first miraculous Super Bowl run.
The names include Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Shane Vereen and Dion Lewis.
An integral offense ingredient that helped fashion the winningest coach-QB combination in NFL history is that sure-handed running back who also serves as the first and/or last passing option for Brady.
An ability to pick up the likes of Von Miller, J.J. Watt or Ray Lewis off the edge helped the Patriots cause, too.
Where Deion Branch, Randy Moss or Rob Gronkowski often found the TD spotlight, having that “safety valve” like a Faulk in the backfield or 2 yards off the line proved crucial in allowing those scoring drives to continue.
Faulk bore that burden for the first decade of the Belichick-Brady-Kraft dynasty and just this year found a home in the Patriots Hall of Fame. Faulk earned three Super Bowl rings in New England during his 13 NFL seasons. Faulk is the Patriots all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,349) and caught a team-record 431 passes as a running back for 3,701 yards and 15 receiving touchdowns. His versatility set a standard for the Patriots unlikely to be matched by anyone currently on the team’s payroll – even the injured Dion Lewis.
By the time Lewis returns from his second left ACL surgery sometime later this fall, it will be close to a year since he’s played in a competitive game. Lewis’ zigs and zags inspired a digital legacy of highlights that left LeGarrette Blount comparing him to video game character. Lewis stole a sizable piece of the offensive pie from Gronk, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola by amassing 388 yards on 36 catches with 4 touchdowns.
With less than two weeks before the season-opener at Arizona, the task of replicating the path carved by Faulk and replacing the productivity of Lewis apparently been bestowed upon James White.
White, at 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, had his best professional season in 2015. It did not manifest itself until Lewis’ season-ending ACL tear in Week 9. White then became the Patriots’ go-to receiving back and ended up catching 47 passes for 494 yards and 4 touchdowns. His running numbers were not nearly as impactful (just 2.57 yards per carry).
White devoured real estate throughout the Big Ten during his 4 seasons at Wisconsin. He plowed a path to Pasadena during his sophomore season (2010), gaining 1,052 yards and scoring 14 touchdowns for the Rose Bowl-bound Badgers. White, a fourth-round pick by New England in 2014, is often lost among the Patriots’ galaxy of key position players. At Wisconsin, he shared reps in the backfield with Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and John Clay. Still, he rushed for more than 100 yards 17 times.
White grew more confident and productive as he accrued more snaps last season. He has worked to become a more complete player in training camp this season. It has worked. His 56-yard catch-and-run from the flat against New Orleans was a highlight in Week 1 of the preseason. Picking up both blitzing linebackers in practice or recovering a fumble like he did against the Panthers last week has combined to elevate White’s status on the imaginary depth chart of NFL media types and the real-life yet ever-evolving chart in Belichick’s head.
White’s quickness is self-evident. He suffers when compared to Lewis because of a more traditional and head-high running style. Lewis’ movement and agility between tackles has been a shortcoming.
Like the others noted on our not-quite-comprehensive list of notable Patriots swing backs, White is able to “catch the ball when he’s supposed to catch the ball” – as Gisele would say. He’s demonstrated solid blocking ability when he doesn’t have the ball and the potential to follow his blockers when he does.
“I think the thing that jumped out with (White) was how proficient he was in the passing game based on what we saw in college, and I think his run skills were good,” Belichick said during an Aug. 23rd press conference. “I think they (his running skills) are good. I think they need some refinement. It’s a little bit different in this league. I think he can run the ball in there and he has taken more reps at doing that and I think that has helped him.”
“It’s still reading blocks,” Belichick continued, “setting blocks up, and then being able to accelerate either with speed or some combination of speed and or power to break arm tackles and get through the line of scrimmage.”
His Patriots stock rose during New England’s preseason win over the Bears. According to Rich Hill at PatsPulpit.com, White played 9 snaps on first down, 7 on second down, 8 on third down, and 2 on fourth down in that game. White carried just 3 times Friday at Carolina for 2 yards and caught 1 pass for zero yards.
Still, all the legible and discernible signs from Foxborough point toward White edging out D.J. Foster in terms of being the No. 1 receiving target at running back until Lewis’ return.
Given that New England and QB-for-4-weeks Jimmy Garoppolo begin their season at Arizona on a Sunday night, any questions about White’s ability to successfully fill Lewis’ role will be quickly answered.
Whether he is ready or not.
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who grew up in the Bay State and has been following the Patriots since 1970. He writes the Obnoxious Boston Fan column for the Boston Herald. He Tweets @RealOBF and @BillSperos