Will the Patriots Run-Game Get on Track Against the Dallas Cowboys?

One of the biggest frustrations of the 2021 season thus far for the New England Patriots has been the complete lack of a run game. In the pre-season, there was an embarrassment of riches at the RB position with 6 guys having a legitimate chance to make the roster and contribute. It was clear that Damien Harris was the lead back and James White would definitely have a roster spot as a receiving back, but after them there was rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, and Sony Michel who were all solid RBs. The once deep and exciting group, has turned into a thin and disappointing one really quickly.

Seeing that there was not room on the roster for 6 RBs, Bill Belichick sent Sony Michel out west to the Los Angeles Rams the day prior to their 3rd and final pre-season game. It became clear that Bill wanted to give an opportunity for the others in the group to take some snaps and Stevenson and Taylor had both had some nice runs in the pre-season, so he hedged and traded Michel which at the time made sense. The season started off solidly on the ground for the Patriots, with a 23-carry, 100-yard performance from Harris in the 1-pt loss to the Miami Dolphins (30 carries as a team – White 4, Jonnu Smith 1, Bolden 1, and Stevenson 1). There was an unfortunate late-game fumble from Harris that clouded his performance, but overall it was solid.

Facing the Jets in week 2, the Patriots had a decent game on the ground with Harris rushing 16 times for 62-yards and White picking up 20-yards on 5 carries. The workload was lighter, only 24 carries as a team, but the balance was still as expected with Harris leading the group. Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints is where things went bad and in a hurry. Against the 4th best run-defense in football, the Patriots weren’t able to get the much going on the ground, partially because they were trailing the entire game. The leading rusher in the game was Mac Jones, with 28-yards on 6 carries and Harris only had 14-yards on 6 carries (2.3 yards per carry). Bolden had 3 rushes for -1-yard and Taylor and White had 1 rush each. Unfortunately for the Pats, James White was carted off the field and his season was over with a hip injury.

Coming off the White injury, the Patriots had the most anticipated regular season game in history against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs and the run game was absolutely atrocious. As a team, the Pats had -1-yard for the game, with the only positive rush coming from WR Nelson Agholor for 4-yards. They only attempted 8 rushes and were absolutely crushed on 7 of the 8. When your team has 6 rushes from 3 RBs that amount to -4-yards, you’ve had a miserable day. Good thing for the Pats, their opponent in week 5, the Houston Texans, would be easier to run on.

The Pats began to right the run-game ship this past Sunday against a mediocre Texans defense. J.J Taylor was inactive, but the Pats rushed 30 times for 136 yards, 25 attempts from Harris and Stevenson. While they still didn’t look great and Harris had another fumble, they took advantage of the Texans who have allowed the 7th most rushing yards to opponents on the season. In a bizarrely close and uncomfortable game, the Pats snuck out of Texas with a 3pt victory on a walk-off Nick Folk field goal, but no one felt good about the performance. During the game, Harris sustained a rib injury and has barely practiced (as of Thursday).

If Harris is inactive or limited, the Patriots enter the game against Dallas extremely thin at RB. Stevenson would presumably pick up the slack for Harris, but then it’s really only Brandon Bolden left on the depth chart. J.J. Taylor was played very little and it’s unclear why (besides his fumble), but could be an option just in case. The once 6-deep running back core is down to 3 or maybe 4 and isn’t going to have an easy time running on the Cowboys who have allowed the 5th fewest rushing yards against this year. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are still without 3 of their 5 offensive linemen due to injuries and COVID-related absences.

If I were a betting man, I’m not taking the Patriots run game to turn it around this week. They have struggled mightily against strong run-defenses and at best, their lead RB will not be 100% with a rib injury that I imagine will hurt every time he gets hit and at worst, he won’t play. Harris and Stevenson have 3 combined fumbles in 5 games, which is not what the Patriots, or any team, want to see. This game could be a big opportunity for Stevenson to show he can be a lead back going forward, but it will not be easy. I’m predicting fewer than 70 yards on the ground this week, so Mac Jones has to be ready to throw 40+ times if the Pats want to have a chance to topple the 4-1 Cowboys.

Understanding the NFL Practice Squad

The other day my father-in-law asked me a question about the practice squad and how it works in the NFL. I had a general idea, but long after our conversation my head kept spinning with questions. Did I really understand how they work in 2021 or was my knowledge antiquated? While it’s not the most exciting topic for everyone, I’m guessing my father-in-law and I are not the only people with questions. The further I dug into the research, the more interested I became in the evolution of the practice squad.

Before jumping in too far, I want to note that thanks to the collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and other negotiations, a lot has changed over the past few decades with practice squads. I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow, but protections for players and teams have increased dramatically over the years in a myriad of ways. Several of those changes are noted in the sections below. While being a practice squad player isn’t the ideal path for most, it can be a way for players to make a little money while being just one step away from an NFL roster.

History and Expansion

Let’s start with the basics. Every NFL team has a practice squad (sometimes historically referred to as a taxi squad). The concept for the squad began in the 1940s, but wasn’t adopted until the mid-1960s and had a brief disappearance in the 1970s. The squad was more formally adopted with the 1993 CBA that established the practice squad as a 5-player group. That number has expanded several times including a few planned expansions in the 2020 CBA that brought the squad to 12 in 2020 with another expansion planned in 2022 to bring the number to 14, however the practice squad has temporarily expanded to 16 for the 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Promotion and Eligibility

Each team is allowed to activate 2 players from their practice squad before a game without officially promoting them to the main roster (prior to 90 minutes before kickoff before inactives are submitted). Recent rule changes allow these players to go directly back to the practice squad (do not pass go and do not pass through waivers) following the game without having to pass through waivers and potentially get signed by another team. A player is only able to be elevated in this capacity twice per season and if they are promoted a third time, the team must sign the player 53-man roster.

Players are eligible for the practice squad if they have played less than 9 games on an active NFL roster during one season or have spent fewer than 3 seasons on a practice squad already (a season is considered at least 6 games on the practice squad) with an exception that was added over the past few CBAs. Each team is allowed to have up to 6 veteran players on their practice squad (an increase from past years). A veteran player can now be a player with any amount of experience in the NFL. The Patriots used this new rule recently when they put veteran K Nick Folk on the practice squad earlier this year.

Salaries

Players aren’t guaranteed anything except that week’s salary when on a practice squad, they are week-to-week hoping for a call-up. The 2021 minimum salary for a non-veteran practice squad player is $9,200 per week ($165,600 for 18 weeks) and a veteran player is $14,000 per week ($252,000 for 18 weeks). That is the minimum however, players have been paid more depending on circumstances to keep players with the team or honor contracts. Unlike a guaranteed active roster contract, if a practice squad player gets released, they get nothing assuming the haven’t been elevated to the active roster.

One additional protection for practice squad players is if a player is signed to the active roster, they receive at least three weeks worth of pay regardless of whether the player spends three weeks on the roster or not, usually the league minimum. This protects the player from being signed for one game, then cut and having to pass through waivers without any future path and no salary. The practice squad life can be a journeyman experience for some.

Signing and Protection

This is the piece of the practice squad that has evolved a lot over the years. Players on practice squads are free to sign with other NFL teams at any point as long as they are being signed to the active 53-man roster, with a few newer exceptions. Every week, each team can designate 4 players on their practice squad to protect. They are not able to be signed by another team during that week. Additionally, a practice squad player is not allowed to sign with their team’s upcoming opponent within 6 days of the game or 10 days if the team is on a bye week. This essentially protects against a team stealing an opponents game plan the week of the game and is something that Bill Belichick would occasionally employ in the past.


Overall the world of navigating practice squads is an absolutely fascinating business, at least to me. Over the years, Bill Belichick has been a master at manipulating this group as evidenced by a few of his moves earlier this year to open roster spots and move players around (i.e. Nick Folk) which is why some of these rules could come into play more often for the New England Patriots than some other teams. There is no doubt that some of the evolution in rules has come because of Belichick, as with other NFL rules changes over the years, which makes his mastery of it even more enjoyable to watch. Keep on eye out for future practice squad movement and feel more confident in understanding the implications of each move.

The Curious Case of Nick Folk’s Resurgence

Over the years, fans of the New England Patriots have been incredibly spoiled in the kicking department, with just 3 kickers signed in total from 1996 through October 2, 2019. The first 10 seasons of that span were Adam Vinatieri, then Stephen Gostkowski from 2006-2019. There was an 8-game stint that required the assistance of Shayne Graham in 2010 when Gostkowski’s season was cut short with a thigh injury, but until October 2, 2019, those 3 were it. The Patriots then signed K Mike Nugent the day following Gostkowski’s injury in 2019 and after 3 weeks, released him to sign current Patriots kicker Nick Folk; just the 5th kicker at the time to sign in New England in 23 seasons.

My reaction to the Nick Folk signing on October 30, 2019 was not a positive one. I watched a fair amount of Folk earlier in his career during his 3-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys and then his 7-year stint with the New York Jets and the results were mixed, to put it generously. In 2009, Folk hit only 64.3% of his field goal attempts, which ultimately led to him landing with the Jets. His career with the Jets was better after the first few years, but there was always a sense that he would miss the big kick in a clutch situation, whether warranted or not. After being released from the Jets in 2017, Folk spent one miserable year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before looking for work in the Alliance of American Football.

Then in October of 2019 the Patriots came calling to give him another shot in the NFL at age 34. Since joining the Patriots, Nick Folk has somehow turned himself into a reliable and consistent place kicker, improving upon all of his previous career numbers. Prior to coming to New England, Folk was an 80.3% field goal kicker who hit 91.7% of tries under 30 yards, 89.9% from 30-39 yards, and just 66.7% from 40+. In his two+ years with the Patriots, Folk has hit 90.4% of all his field goal tries, including an insane 100% from under 40 yards (26 tries) and 80.8% from 40+ yards. For comparison, Adam Vinatieri was only an 81.9% field goal kicker in his 10 seasons with the Pats. To be fair Folk has missed 4 extra points in his 48 attempts with the Pats (91.7%), but overall he’s made up for those 4 points with many more field goals made.

In 2020, Folk ranked as the 8th best kicker in football by field goal percentage (92.9%), well ahead of the Pats former kicker Stephen Gostkowski (69.2%) who ranked 31st out of 33 in football. In 2021, Folk is looking just as strong as last season early on, hitting his first 7 tries in 2 games thus far. In week 1, Folk broke the Patriots consecutive field goal streak (formerly 29) and extended it in the win over the New York Jets on Sunday to 33-straight. To break a kicking record in New England is incredible given the recent history of Vinatieri and Gostkowski at that position.

It’s still hard for me to not cringe when Folk is kicking a field goal in a big spot, but by all accounts he has been great for the Pats. With a rookie QB that is being eased into the NFL, Folk becomes an even more critical piece this season to score points and thus deserves more attention than in the past. Let’s hope this new Nick Folk trend of reliability and consistency is here to stay.