FOXBOROUGH - The Patriots were nearly running on empty by the second quarter of their 56-10 blowout victory over the Buffalo Bills Sunday night at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
In the second quarter, both Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney were knocked out of the game because of injuries. Maroney left, somewhat mysteriously, because of a foot injury that didn't show up on the play-by-play sheet for the game, and Faulk suffered a head injury on New England's fourth possession after he took a shot from Buffalo safety Donte Whitner following a 10-yard catch-and-run. The veteran running back appeared dazed after the game.
Those injuries - and the loss of Sammy Morris, who was placed on injured reserve Nov. 2 because of a season-ending chest injury - left Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel as the remaining runners in the Patriots' stable. The two fullbacks filled the void for one night; Evans gained a team-high 56 yards on 10 carries, and Eckel had 40 yards on 10 rushes with a 1-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"It's good to have guys who can handle the ball and block," coach Bill Belichick said. "Their big role for both of them has been in the kicking game, but they're big enough to block and they have enough running skills, mainly as inside runners, to be able to find holes and gain yards with the ball, so it's not like having a guard in the backfield kind of thing. They give us a little bit of flexibility in terms of ball-handling."
But could they carry the Patriots over a longer haul if Faulk and Maroney are unavailable for a few weeks, or would the team consider bringing in another back to help tote the ball?
Old friend Corey Dillon, through his agent, Steve Feldman, has said he would come out of retirement to rejoin the Patriots. Dillon has been working out with a trainer near his Calabasas, Calif., home for more than a month.
But Belichick rejected the idea of bringing back the recalcitrant running back, and as of last night, Feldman said the Patriots had not contacted him about the 33-year-old Dillon, who was the Patriots' leading rusher last season with 812 yards and 13 touchdowns on 199 carries.
"If they needed him, he'd be more than happy to come back and help," said Feldman. "At this point, they aren't in a position that they feel they need him."
At least not yet. Belichick wasn't giving any clues about the injuries to Faulk and Maroney yesterday. When asked if he would be comfortable with just Evans and Eckel as his running backs for a stretch, he said it was too hypothetical a question.
However, there is some precedent that indicates over a two- or three-game stretch the 6-foot, 250-pound Evans and the 5-11, 237-pound Eckel could fuel the Patriots' running attack, which after 10 games ranks fifth in the league at 131.8 yards per game.
Eckel rushed for 2,906 yards during his college career at Navy and had 13 career 100-yard games for the Midshipmen. This season he has rushed 33 times for 90 yards and a pair of garbage-time touchdowns.
In 2005, the Patriots were razor-thin at running back, as Dillon, coming off a career-high 1,635-yard season, was limited by a high ankle sprain and a right calf strain; Faulk missed eight games because of a broken foot; and third-string tailback Patrick Pass pulled up with a hamstring injury in the seventh game of the season.
The Patriots signed Evans, who had been released by the Dolphins, on Nov. 1, and after not touching the ball in a loss to the Colts, Evans was the lead back for the next two games, rushing for 158 yards on 33 carries (4.8 yards per carry).
Evans, who had a career-high 192 yards rushing in 2005, victimized the Dolphins for 84 yards on 17 carries and scored a 2-point conversion rush in a 23-16 Patriots win, and the next week he had 74 yards on 16 carries in a 24-17 victory over the Saints.
In a sign that the Patriots perhaps are not in as dire straits as they were two years ago, Belichick said, "Yeah, well, '05 is '05. I don't know what we'd do this year."
With Faulk injured, Evans, who has 30 carries for 117 yards and three receptions for 39 yards this season, became the lone running back when the Patriots went to their two-minute offense on their fifth and final drive of the first half. Although he lacks Faulk's elusiveness out of the backfield, Evans is a strong pass protector, which is important in the two-minute role.
During the drive, he converted a third and 1 from the Buffalo 19, and two plays later Tom Brady found Randy Moss for a 17-yard score.
"As much one-back as we are, that helps us, too," Belichick said. "It's hard to put another back in the backfield who all they can do is block. That kind of limits you offensively [and it] limits you in terms of your roster space.
"It's good to have guys that can block and also handle the ball and have some kind of role in the passing game, but most importantly play in the kicking game. That's where we really need those guys."