While New England Patriots RB Sony Michel couldn’t quite match the production from his breakout rookie season, his second year wasn’t actually that bad.
It’s amazing how quickly one’s stock can change in a brutal, competitive sport and business like the National Football League.
Especially if you just so happen to play running back.
One moment, you’re a sensation that’s changing the complexion of the game itself, setting record books aflame, and rewriting the identity of your team’s offense. Your star’s on the rise, you’re signing babies on the sidelines at training camp, and your name is on the lips of hundreds of thousands of fans and analysts around the world.
The next moment, you’re washed-up… a has-been. Whether it’s injuries, ineffectiveness, a scheme change, or any number of other reasons, your 15 minutes of fame are up. The same people who once championed you and called themselves your biggest supporters are now your No. 1 detractors.
They’ve traded in laurels and trophies for torches and pitchforks, in short.
But that’s just the way it goes in the NFL.
A popular past time and subplot around the New England Patriots this past season was trying to figure out just what exactly happened to Sony Michel.
Michel had been the breakout star of 2018 in New England – his first season in the NFL. He came into the league as a surprise first-round draft pick of the Patriots out of the University of Georgia, and though he initially had his setbacks with injuries, he came on strong down the stretch for his new team.
In fact, one could make a pretty compelling case that New England doesn’t win Lombardi Trophy No. 6 in 2018 without Michel. Somewhere along the course of that season, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels realized what they had in Michel, and they essentially turned the keys of their offense over to him.
Make no mistake – Rob Gronkowski was still around, but it was clear that the dynamic tight end was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career (he retired the following March of course).
Julian Edelman won Super Bowl MVP against the Los Angeles Rams, but he also missed the first quarter of the regular season while serving a suspension for PEDs.
Tom Brady was fresh off a record-setting Super Bowl appearance (and loss) against the Philadelphia Eagles, but his numbers no longer reflected the MVP-level kind of stats he put up during the regular season in 2017.
Moral of the story? The offense in 2018 – particularly the second half of the regular season, and then especially throughout the playoffs – ran through Michel.
In just 13 regular season appearances, Michel rushed for 931 yards and six touchdowns on 209 attempts, averaging 4.5 yards per carry along the way. He was even better in his three postseason appearances , rushing for 336 yards and another six touchdowns on 71 attempts, for a rush average of 4.7 yards per carry.
Understandably, expectations were sky-high for Michel coming into 2019. With 16 games of NFL action at the highest level under his belt – not to mention a relatively clean bill of health heading into the season opener – the hopes were high around Beantown that Michel could eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing plateau in his second season if he stayed healthy.
Ultimately, Michel never really came close to what many had predicted for him production-wise in Year Two.
Does that mean he was a major disappointment, though?
Ask many Pats fans and they’ll give you a resounding “yes.” It’s natural to look at the struggles of the New England offense all season long and pinpoint most of the blame on three main areas: the shuffling offensive line, the middling rushing production, and the lack of talent and consistency at the pass-catching positions (WR and TE).
Of course, Brady himself probably deserves a fair share of the blame himself. McDaniels and Belichick, too, for that matter.
But upon looking at Michel’s numbers a bit more closer, it’s hard to say he definitively experienced a ‘second-year slump.’ He didn’t live up to the lofty goals and aspirations pinned onto him during the offseason, and he even fell short of the numbers he had as a rookie. But a slump?
Michel had 912 rushing yards on 247 attempts across 16 regular season games, to go along with seven touchdowns and a 3.7 yards per carry average. In the Patriots’ lone playoff game, he had 61 yards on 14 carries for a 4.4 yards per rush average and no touchdowns.
Notably, he also improved a bit as a receiver, upping his 2019 stats on that frontier to 12 receptions on 20 targets for 94 yards through the air (he had seven receptions on 11 targets for 50 yards in 2018).
Again, these numbers aren’t anywhere near what was expected from Michel in 2019, especially given the idea that the New England offense would flow through him. But a 3.7 yards per carry average is nothing to sneeze at in the NFL – especially when you consider the massive drop-off in talent and health between the 2018 Patriots’ offensive line and the lesser 2019 version.
Moreover, Michel increased his touchdown total and actually made himself a more versatile weapon as a pass-catching option for Brady. Admittedly he still has a lot further to go in this department before defenses start respecting his ability as a “wideout” of sorts, but still… it’s a start.
The point of the matter is that for all the shortcomings and failings of the 2019 New England Patriots – especially on offense – perhaps Michel deserves a bit more of a reprieve than what he received most of the season from fans and analysts. He certainly underperformed against expectations, but he also wasn’t nearly as bad as many people might have thought he was.