Neither offense ran a play in the red zone until the 7:03 mark in the fourth quarter. Neither found themselves in the end zone until then, either, when a rookie running back dove through from two yards out.
“Three against the Chargers, two against the Chiefs, and now the first touchdown of Super Bowl LIII,” Jim Nantz announced on the CBS broadcast.
The first would also be the last.
Six offensive linemen had a hand in it. So did two tight ends and a fullback with a neckroll. So did Sony Michel.
The initial call? A draw. But as a 3-3 game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams became 10-3, there wasn’t any draw to be seen. Instead there was I-formation, motion, and a first-round draft pick out of Georgia celebrating at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where his Bulldogs lost the national title game to Alabama just 13 months prior.
“It’s a different situation, but there’s no better feeling than winning the Super Bowl,” Michel reflected afterwards. “A wise man once told me to be where your feet are, and right now, we’re Super Bowl champs and God is good.”
No rookie has ever rushed for more playoff touchdowns than Michel’s six. Leonard Fournette had four in 2017. Jamal Lewis reached that total in 2000. William Floyd got there in 1994. The same goes for Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Tony Dorsett in 1977 and Norm Standlee in 1941.
It’s as many as Michel logged through 13 appearances during his inaugural NFL regular season.
“Unbelievable. A rookie,” said Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who, one snap before Michel’s touchdown, came up with 29 yards on a pinpointed pass down the seam from quarterback Tom Brady. “People were doubting him at first, just like anyone else, and we kept grinding. We kept sticking together.”
Michel, listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, finished Sunday night having rushed 18 times for 94 yards in a defensive tug-of-war that gave way to 632 yards worth of punts. Along the way for the former five-star recruit out of American Heritage School were bursts of 13, 19 and 26 yards.
“He ran hard, broke some big runs when we needed it,” said Brady, who handed off to Michel on three of New England’s initial four downs before throwing an interception to Rams linebacker Cory Littleton on the fifth. “What an incredible rookie season he’s had. Just so proud of him. He’s done an incredible job.”
Michel entered as the third running back drafted last spring behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny. The No. 31 overall selection would go on to miss most of training camp and all of the preseason following a procedure to drain fluid from his left knee. He’d miss the opener against the Houston Texans, as well as Week 8 against the Buffalo Bills and Week 9 against the Green Bay Packers in wake of another knee-related scare.
Michel would still become the most productive rookie back to suit up under Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. He amassed 931 rushing yards on 209 carries to go with those aforementioned six scores while, according to Next Gen Stats, facing eight defenders in the box on 26.79% of his opportunities.
“As soon as he came in during OTAs, I knew he was going to be a special player for us and definitely help us out a lot,” said fellow running back James White, the signee of a three-year, $12 millionextension not long after Super Bowl LI.
Michel fit the identity for what the 2018 Patriots eventually became in early 2019.
Physical, clock-killing, possession-controlling champions.
And behind a Dante Scarnecchia-coached offensive line featuring a larger-than-life trade acquisition in left tackle Trent Brown, an ironman left guard in Joe Thuney, an undrafted captain at center in David Andrews, a $50 million road-grading right guard in Shaq Mason, plus a longstanding right tackle in Marcus Cannon, Michel went on his way.
It was once questioned why the Patriots drafted a running back in the first round for just the second time since Belichick’s arrival. Then it was questioned again. And again. Could a later prospect have turned in similar results without occupying $9.626 million in cumulative cap space over four years? Would New England have been better served by re-signing current Tennessee Titan Dion Lewis, who left on a $19.8 million pact in free agency last March? Should the war room have used one of its valued assets on a position that has become, in a sense, undervalued? Will the fifth-year option for a top-32 running back be desirable or feasible down the road?
Michel couldn’t answer those questions directly. But he ran his way through them.
“People saying he’s a bust and all this and all that,” said Andrews, Michel’s onetime college teammate at Georgia. “And I knew when he got his shot, he’d cut it loose.”
Michel amassed 129 rushing yards in the divisional round and 113 more in the AFC Championship Game before his showing in Atlanta. If the 23-year-old listened to what was said in the summer and fall, he respected it for what it was.
“No, it really – everybody has their own opinions,” Michel said. “The only thing that matters is this team. Guys that believed in me, guys that kept my head straight and just taught me so much through this process.”
The process is ongoing for Michel. No longer is he a rookie.
“He had some huge performances for us down the stretch, and he’s an awesome player,” added White. “He’ll be a force in this league for a while.”
Source: Oliver Thomas | Forbes