FOXBOROUGH — Henry Vereen has come up with a unique way to describe the position his son, Shane, plays for the Patriots. It’s not limited to running back, because Vereen has done so much more than carry the ball, especially the past month.
“I call him a running back with benefits, because when he gets the ball in the open, he can do some things, he’s a great open-field runner,” Henry Vereen said this week by phone from California. “What running back wouldn’t want the ball in the open field with so many of the defensive guys already behind him?”
Vereen’s emergence as a pass-catching threat has been clearly evident since he’s returned after missing eight games with a broken wrist. In the Patriots’ last four games, Vereen has 33 receptions, capped by last Sunday’s 12-catch performance in a 27-26 comeback win over Cleveland. That career day catching the football — Vereen’s 153 receiving yards marked a personal best and established a franchise record for a running back, and he was targeted by Tom Brady a whopping 17 times — illustrates how valuable the Patriots view the third-year back from Berkeley.
With tight end Rob Gronkowski lost for the season, the recent trend of getting Vereen the ball through the air could easily continue — starting with Sunday’s game in steamy Miami — and become even more important as the Patriots head toward the postseason.
“It all depends on the offense, I would say. This offense calls for me to catch the ball a little bit more out of the backfield, so that’s what I’m willing to do,” Vereen said. “The way our offense is, the way offenses are starting to change now, they’re calling for running backs to be able to do more.”
Becoming a reliable receiving threat also speaks to Vereen’s versatility, and that runs in the family. Henry Vereen was a standout running back in high school, but moved to wideout when he arrived at UNLV, where he played from 1975-78. All he did for the Rebels was rack up 4,280 all-purpose yards, still the second-most in school history. He also owns the longest reception at UNLV, an 87-yarder.
Tempting as it might be, Henry Vereen said he’s resisted the urge to flood his son with all of the pass-catching knowledge he’s accumulated. More than likely, it’s been passed along, piece by piece, over the years.
“I might try to give him a few tips here and there, but it’s a whole different game,” said Henry Vereen, who was drafted by the Buccaneers. “Shane was always driven to be good at whatever he was trying to do.”
This season, that’s been catching the football. Among running backs in the NFL with at least 35 rushing attempts, Vereen is one of only two that has more receptions than carries. Vereen has 38 carries and 40 receptions this season, but he’s played only five games, so he’s averaging eight catches per game, which leads the team. Darren Sproles of the Saints has 58 catches and 42 carries.
Throwing the ball to running backs isn’t new; with 767, Marshall Faulk is the all-time NFL leader for receptions by a running back, and he last played in 2005. Combine the right team and the right offense with the right player, and you’ll see ball carriers sprinkled in among tight ends and wideouts on the league’s total receptions list. Former Patriot Danny Woodhead has 66 catches for the Chargers, the most this season for a running back, while Chicago’s Matt Forte (65), Pierre Thomas (64) of the Saints, and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles (57) all have more than 50.
Vereen had no receptions as a rookie in 2011, when injuries limited him to just five games, and only eight catches last season. In his three seasons at Cal, Vereen had 27, 25, and 22 receptions.
So where, exactly, has this surge come from? Ability, opportunity, determination, and preparation.
“Shane works extremely hard. He’s really intelligent and studies diligently each week to know the opponent and to know what his role in the game plan is,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “He’s a guy that allows us to do some different things with him, but I go back to his preparation and his ability to handle that, because if you can’t handle those different things, it’s hard to even get lined up to attempt to do them.”
Despite those pedestrian pass-catching numbers at Cal — where he once logged 42 rushing attempts in a game — his running backs coach saw enough smarts and skill that pass plays were eventually created specifically for Vereen.
“I have tapes that I show my guys here of Shane running go-routes and scoring touchdowns. We did all those things with Shane, he excited me with his ability to catch the ball,” said Ron Gould, who recruited Vereen to Cal, was his running backs coach there, and is now the head coach at UC-Davis. “When you look at his skill set, he’s a good enough athlete to catch the ball, and his football IQ is off the charts. I’m not surprised the Patriots are using him this way.”
Giving an example of Vereen’s football acumen — he graduated from Cal in 3½ years — Gould said certain pass plays required the running back to make a split-second decision, with five options available, depending on what the defense does. Pass protect in case of a blitz, then different routes against different coverages and defensive decisions. Gould said it takes two special players to read that situation correctly: the running back and the quarterback.
“Brady’s understanding is second to none. For Shane to have 12 catches [in a game], it takes a special quarterback to anticipate and be on the same page, but it also takes a special back to know his reads and be definitive. Because if he’s not, it creates more issues,” Gould said. “With Shane’s ability to be very definitive, Tom can now anticipate, and that’s when a guy like Brady is at his best.”
Vereen has been at his best, too, and the Patriots have needed it. They’ll likely need it again with Gronkowski unavailable. Of course, defenses that have tried to limit what Gronkowski can do can easily switch their focus to Vereen.
“Do defenses adjust? Certainly they can. I’m sure every defensive coach has calls in his arsenal that could try to discourage you from trying to get the ball to a certain player,” McDaniels said. “In Shane’s case, I mean, we can hand the ball to Shane.”
Right. Vereen, remember, is still a running back. With benefits.