New England Patriots running back Curtis Martin, a Pro Bowl performer in each of his two seasons in the NFL, is experiencing a freedom of movement this year.
The third-round draft pick from the University of Pittsburgh in 1995 is being given more options by Pete Carroll and his coaching staff. With Bill Parcells in charge, there were strict limits to what Martin could do on various running plays. If the hole where Martin was supposed to run appeared to be jammed, he still had to hit that hole. Parcells would always tell him to "trust the play."
There were some cut-back lanes built into the designs of the plays, but those came beyond the line of scrimmage. Martin and all the other backs were under strict orders to run to the appointed hole. If the play was stopped, it would be a no-gainer, but at least there would be a minimum of negative plays, which might happen if a back was given the freedom to design his own plays on the run.
Obviously the system worked to Martin's advantage. As a rookie, he led the AFC in rushing with 1,487 yards. Last year, he had 1,152 but was in Parcells' words "a much better player than he was in 1995, much better." The year's experience gave him a better feel for the passing game and he was used more in that role, making 46 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns.
Still, when Carroll and his staff started watching tapes of Martin, they decided to make him a full-time player. Under the former regime, Martin was strictly a first- and second-down back. When passing situations developed, Dave Meggett would replace Martin. For one thing, he was Parcells' guy. For another, he was a proven blitz blocker and solid receiver.
Carroll wanted Martin to get his hands on the ball as often as possible.
But why tinker with success? This is a back who's been to the Pro Bowl twice in his two years. He's scored 32 touchdowns in 32 games.
Kirby Wilson, the Patriots running backs coach, said the changes don't amount to tinkering at all.
"The first thing we said as a staff is that Curtis is a Pro Bowl running back so don't try to fix something that isn't broken," said Wilson, who coached Troy Davis at Iowa State before joining Carroll's staff this year. "We want Curtis to be Curtis. We're not trying to change his running style or his decision-making.
"There are still rules about running based on reads of the (positioning of the) defense. It might appear that he's improvising but in reality, he's following the design of the play. We're just giving him the freedom to use his vision and ability."
Martin likes what he's being asked to do. "The play is still designed to go one place," the soft-spoken third-year back said. "But now I have the freedom to go somewhere else if the hole is blocked. You can't always stay on one track. Why keep pounding it in there and getting 1, 2, or 3 yards? Why not look somewhere else, especially when a team has eight or nine guys up front to take away the running game. This allows me to be a running back. It gives me the discretion to make more decisions as a runner. You get used to seeing how the flow of the game is going and you can anticipate where a hole might be."
So far, Martin has been anticipating better than ever. In five games, he has 540 yards on 116 attempts, a 4.6-yard average, by far the best of his career. As a rookie, he averaged 4 yards a carry. Last year, the average dropped to 3.6 yards.
Even more impressive than his numbers is the fact that they've come against defenses that were stacked to limit his effectiveness. Eight defenders between the tackles has become a routine sight for the Patriots' offense as teams have decided that they'd rather take a chance on Drew Bledsoe beating them with the pass than with Martin pounding away at them.