The New England Patriots' quest for a fifth Lombardi Trophy, you might recall, began with the not-so-small task of surviving a quarter of the season without one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
With Tom Brady serving his Deflategate suspension for the first four games last season, the Patriots leaned on the ground game -- and, more specifically, running back LeGarrette Blount -- in what turned out to be a tone-setting 3-1 start. They ran the ball 53 percent of the time over that span compared with 45 percent when Brady was back in the fold. Blount was in the middle of it all. He averaged 25 carries and 99 yards and scored four times over the first three games, all New England wins.
Positioned as the lead back, he went on to set new career highs in carries (299), yards (1,161) and touchdowns (18).
"Just the number of opportunities," Blount said, explaining why he experienced such a spike in production in Year 7 of his NFL career. "Obviously, Tom missing four games played a part in the opportunities that I had. Just taking advantage of all of them."
Blount, 30, finds himself in another situation ripe with opportunity. He signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles in May, joining a backfield in desperate need of a lead dog. Ryan Mathews (neck) is expected to be cut once he is cleared medically, creating a need for a physical, downhill runner to go with the lighter Darren Sproles (5-foot-6, 190 pounds), rookie Donnel Pumphrey (5-foot-8, 169 pounds) and unproven second-year back Wendell Smallwood.
At 6-foot, 250 pounds, Blount fits the bill. He rumbled for 518 yards after first contact last season, good for sixth in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information. He picked up 67 first downs (fifth in the league) with a 50 percent conversion rate on third-down attempts. And his 18 rushing touchdowns were the most in the NFL since Adrian Peterson matched that number in 2009.
"Just get back to pounding the ball a little bit, just imposing your will on these defenses, being able to get Blount out there in the secondary," Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley said about what the revamped backfield could bring. "I'm pretty sure those safeties will think twice about hitting him."
Blount's presence should help the Eagles achieve a primary goal of being more run-heavy in 2017. Quarterback Carson Wentz was put in precarious positions far too often as a rookie. He set a franchise record for most pass attempts in a season (607) despite being green to the league and operating with substandard offensive weapons. Wentz attempted 40 or more passes seven times, including 60 attempts in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in early December.
Some of that can be pinned on the playcalling of head coach Doug Pederson and issues along the offensive line during right tackle Lane Johnson's 10-game suspension, but a less-than-reliable running back group (with the exception of Sproles) was also a factor. The hope is that the additions of Blount and Pumphrey, a fourth-round pick out of San Diego State, will bring more balance to the force.
"Oh, Doug communicated it himself," Staley said. "He talked about running the ball: 'We're not bringing these guys in here just to sit them up on the shelf. We want to run the ball, and we want to impose our will.'"
Blount, an undrafted free agent out of Oregon, has changed teams four times in his career. He started with the Tampa Bay Bucs, went to New England for two years and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. He was released that November after leaving the field early during a Steelers win (in which he was used sparingly). He was picked up again by the Patriots a short time later and made his way to Philadelphia after posting a standout season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other player since 1933 to change teams after a season in which he was the NFL's outright leader in rushing touchdowns was Greg Bell, who went from the Rams to the Raiders in 1990. The challenge in front of Blount is to prove that he can have success comparable to last year while operating outside the Patriots machine.
Blount says he has been welcomed with open arms by the Eagles' locker room, and he has benefited from having a veteran such as Sproles teach him the finer points of the system. Asked why he chose Philly for this chapter of his career, he pointed to the upside of Wentz, and what's possible if the young signal-caller can get a boost on the ground.
"I don't think there was a hole I had to fill or void I had to fill," Blount said. "It was just [about] adding a lot more weapons around Carson, giving him the opportunity to be better and grow as a quarterback. He's a young guy. It's only his second year -- just taking a lot of responsibility off of him. I think he's going to be a really special player, but it takes a lot of responsibility off him and what he's called on doing.
"They were 7-9 last year. They were pretty close in a lot of games. Carson is going to be a really good quarterback; he's going to be something special. I think they're building something good here, and I just want to be a part of it."