The “next-man-up” mantra is such a part of the Patriot Way it can easily turn into something to mock, taken as evidence the players are nothing more than robots in red, white, and blue, ready to answer every Bill Belichick command with mind-numbing obedience.
But the thing is, when it comes to the brutal game of football, the mantra is often too real. With rampant injuries and volatile rosters, “next-man-up” always applies. It’s one of the cornerstones of the foundation Belichick has built in New England, right up there alongside coaching a player to his strengths rather than trying to cover up his weaknesses, seen everywhere from handing the ball to Cam Newton where Tom Brady once stood, or to asking Joe Thuney to start under center because David Andrews could not.
But it was a different example of “next man up” that really resonated through the Patriots' 36-20 thumping of the Raiders Sunday at Gillette Stadium, an example of what happens when teammates care so much about each other that they play for them, especially when the teammate cannot.
With every carry Rex Burkhead cradled to his chest, with every catch he nestled inside his thick forearms, he wasn’t just playing for the Patriots, and he wasn’t just playing for himself.
He was playing for his friend, his fellow running back, and his teammate James White.
“It really is tough, a lot of us, we think about him every single day and his situation,” Burkhead said. “He’s an unbelievable person, player and leader of this team. With that situation, what he and his family are going through, it’s sad.”
Clearing his throat and saying “sorry” as he paused to gather himself, Burkhead continued.
“We just try to go out there, try to play for him, give it our all to try to focus on what we can do. Of course, a bunch of guys have been reaching out to him, hoping he’s doing OK. It’s rough, tough. He’s a brother to me ... I really feel his pain in this whole situation.”
The entire Patriot organization had White at the forefront of their thoughts, with the scoreboard showing a pregame tribute to Tyrone White, James’s father, who was killed in an automobile accident in Florida prior to the team’s Week 2 game at Seattle. White has been home with his family since, especially as his mother Lisa continues to battle critical injuries she sustained in the same crash. Belichick, himself mourning the loss of his mother a little over a week ago as well as the father of his longtime girlfriend Linda Holliday, opened his postgame comments thanking the outpouring of support he has felt, while at the same time offering it up to White.
He was far from alone.
“Throughout the week, especially with him missing from practice, we’re always thinking about him,” Sony Michel said. “I can speak for myself, I’m thinking about him, texting him, making sure he’s good, staying in high spirits. The rest of the backs did the same thing. We all came together and played hard. That’s what James White does. He doesn’t complain, he goes to work every day. I’m sure you hear it all the time, but that’s who he is.”
The diverse, playmaking skill set the man known as “Sweet Feet” will be gladly and wholeheartedly welcomed whenever White feels up to returning, but in the meantime, Burkhead made it clear he was going to have White’s back. A career-best three touchdowns, two on the ground and one in the air, a team-high seven receptions for 49 yards, another 49 gained on the ground serving as the perfect balance to Michel (117 rushing yards) and rookie J.J. Taylor (43).
The signature image of Burkhead’s signature game as a Patriot came near the end of the first half, the high-flying finish to a catch-and-run beauty that saw the veteran bodysurf his way into the end zone.
“I don’t think I really had to jump — I don’t know why I did it,” Burkhead laughed. “It came reactive and instinctively, and I ended up in the end zone, so it worked out.”
Maybe it was White lifting him over the goal line (though replays show it was Raiders' cornerback Nevin Lawson who seemed to give him the extra push). Either way, it was New England’s first TD of the game after two field goals, gave them a 13-3 lead, and preemptively softened the blow of a last-second first-half answer by the Raiders.
But if Las Vegas coach Jon Gruden had brief designs on finally getting his first win as a head coach against the Pats, heading into the break trailing, 13-10, Burkhead and Co. made all the adjustments necessary to dominate the second half.
A 5-yard rolling, acrobatic touchdown run in the third quarter and a 2-yard bruising one in the fourth, and Burkhead crowned himself the player of the game.
“Burky had a game,” Newton marveled afterwards. "He had a day. Those guys were teasing each other in the locker room [saying] Sony did a lot of the heavy lifting. …
“We practice to maximize our role.”
It’s the Patriot way. Just as much as “next man up” is.
On Sunday, everyone stepped up for White.
“Individually you spend a lot of time thinking about James, praying for him, praying for his family,” Devin McCourty said. “It was good to get a win, and I hope, if he had the time, he saw it, knowing we were all playing with heavy hearts and thinking of him.”
More Patriots coverage
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- Patriots up front about reasons for success against Raiders - the offensive line came to play
- The Raiders' Darren Waller was second in the NFL in catches. On Sunday, the Patriots rendered him useless
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.