FOXBOROUGH -- It has become one of the rituals of the start of training camp, right up there with two-a-day practices, the double issuing of jersey numbers and punitive practice laps.
Every year around this time there is the annual Laurence Maroney "this is the year" story. This is the year that Maroney fulfills the potential that rests on his shoulder like a pair of oversized shoulder pads. This is the year he becomes the go-to back for the Patriots. This is the year he becomes a 1,000-yard rusher. It's kind of like the Red Sox pre-2004 -- wait, rinse, repeat.
This year is no different, but Maroney has to be. This is the year for the affable and gregarious running back, or it could be his last as a Patriot. Maroney's contract is up after this season, along with the rest of the Patriots running backs. The team has two first-round picks and two second-round picks in next year's draft. Picks they could use to take the feature back of the future, which is what they thought Maroney was when they tabbed him with the 21st selection in the 2006 draft.
It hasn't worked out that way. Maroney is entering the fifth year of his NFL career and in some people's minds, he is entering the fifth season of unfulfilled promise. Maroney has had both his toughness and his vision criticized in his four seasons in Foxborough. He has teased with his talent and frustrated teammates, coaches, fans, and himself with inconsistency and indecisiveness.
Know this about No. 39: it's never been an effort issue. If anything it's the opposite. He tries too hard to please too many people and has too many voices in his head. Maroney is not a knucklehead who doesn't care. He cares too much.
Maroney sounded more mature and circumspect yesterday. He is, believe it or not, one of the veterans now on this team, even though he is just 25 years old. His goal for this make-or-break season in New England was right out of the Bill Belichick Media Playbook.
"Win, that's the only reason that we're here for," said Maroney. "We ain't here to get personal stats are we? We're here for one thing and that's to win, so whatever I can do to help us win that's what I'm going to do."
It's easy to forget that Maroney has done that during his Patriots career. The Patriots have never lost a game, regular-season or playoffs, in which he toted the ball 20 or more times. They are 8-0. He was the team's leading rusher for the second time in three seasons with 757 yards last season and scored a career-high nine touchdowns.
However, he had a difficult time holding onto the football and had an uncharacteristic four fumbles. He carried just once in the Patriots' miserable playoff loss to Baltimore and was benched after he was bowled over by Ray Lewis on a blitz pickup.
Maroney may have dropped the ball at times last season, but he's willfully letting go of the baggage of the past.
"You know if I hold on to that I'm going to never progress," he said. "I'm always going to be thinking about the past. You just got to let it go and move on. You can't change it. I can't change what happened in the first four years. All I can do is dictate what's going to happen the next ones."
The Patriots favor a running back-by-committee approach, but, like it or not, Maroney is the team's best option for a bellwether back. He may never emerge as a game-breaker in the backfield, but the Patriots haven't seen his best yet and don't have better options.
Kevin Faulk excels in his third-down role. Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are 33 and 34, respectively. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a valuable and versatile backup, but far from a feature back. Still, Maroney was matter-of-fact about his role and earning the trust of Belichick.
"Just because I was a first-rounder, just because it's my fifth year doesn't mean I deserve anything," he said. "Nothing out here is deserved. You got to earn everything, so I'm just at the point to where if I want 20 carries, I just have to come out here and earn my 20 carries."
At times being a running back on an offense that features Tom Brady at quarterback can make you feel a bit like a pawn. That's a term that Maroney is familiar with. He let it slip yesterday that he is a chess player. He's been playing since high school, and is a member of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Maroney and the club donated 30 chess boards to the Taunton Boys & Girls Club.
"I look at it as chess can help with football because one thing about chess when you move you're not moving for right now you're moving to set up moves later on," said Maroney. "That's how football is. ... I can see the linebacker right here, but what move can I do to set this safety up too? I look at chess as just [the same] as playing football."
Pessimists are probably saying that at least Maroney can't get hurt playing chess, or that he tap-dances the pieces on the board before settling on a move.
That's OK because there has been a lot of shedding of past reputations recently inside -- or more accurately on -- the walls of Gillette Stadium. The message Belichick is sending is that this team has a blank slate -- Maroney included.
"I never thought of it that way, but now that you've said it could mean that. I'm just going to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to me," Maroney said.
He has to because this is the year or this is it as a Patriot.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.