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There are maybe two or three things on Route 1 that predate Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach of the Patriots. Rodman Ford. The Dunkin’ Donuts near 495.
Ivan Fears is one of them. So if this video of him basically saying so long to Damien Harris at the end of Saturday’s loss to the Bills is what we think it is — the first step in a long goodbye for the New England running backs’ coach — it’s big. This is a man who will leave with an unimpeachable legacy of success. He’ll be remembered as a franchise pillar, and an underrated piece of the success of the Patriots’ dynasty.
First, this point should be written down, underlined, and highlighted: He was part of the New England coaching staff before Belichick took over as the head coach. Fears, who spent the 1991-92 seasons with the Patriots as the wide receivers coach before moving on to Chicago for a stretch, was part of Pete Carroll’s coaching staff in 1999, eventually becoming the running backs coach in New England in 2002.
Since then, the Patriots’ running back position has been established, erased, re-established, and erased again, and still, Fears keeps going with an extraordinary record of consistent success. They’ve had 12 different running backs lead the team in rushing since 2000. Only four other franchises — Arizona, Cleveland, Denver, and Detroit — have had a greater number of backs lead the team in rushing in that span.
Second, it’s not like the backs who have led New England in rushing over the years have all been the same type of runner: He’s had Kevin Faulk (5-foot-8, 202 pounds) and LeGarrette Blount (6-feet, 247 pounds); Dion Lewis (5-8, 195) and Antowain Smith (6-2, 232); Jonas Gray (5-9, 223) and Corey Dillon (6-1, 225). All wildly disparate talents of contrasting size and running style who took different journeys to Foxborough. But all of them succeeded with Fears as their position coach. (We’re not even including the half-dozen others like Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis who led the team in rushing at one point or another.)
In addition, there have been no fewer than four different “third-down” backs (Faulk, Lewis, Shane Vereen, and James White) in that same span, all of whom have become vital targets in the New England passing game.
Belichick’s team-building style has included plenty of personnel turnover at the running back spot — going back to his days as a head coach in Cleveland, he’s never had a back go for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons. But while there have been some seasons where he’s had to make do with a less-than-ideal group, through it all, Fears has kept a steady hand on the wheel.
It takes an extraordinary coach to be able to handle that sort of turnover. But Fears is that sort of coach. Ask anyone who has played for him, and they will tell you Fears is a blend of tough love and empathy that is rare across the National Football League. He starts every running back session with, “It’s going to be a great day, gentlemen!” And more often that not, it is. There’s accountability, but there’s also positivity, and a genuine feeling of family. Every back who has come through New England in the last 21 years considers Fears a father figure, one they didn’t want to let down.
If that video is indeed what we think it is, the loss of Fears is a major event for the franchise. The loss of foundational elements like Fears and Dante Scarnecchia are treated as single lines of agate in the transaction section of the sports page, but those are the sorts of people who help create the scaffolding that allows Belichick to achieve his ultimate vision. (Reminder, the second time Scarnecchia retired, the Patriots replaced him with two people.)
Faulk should get the job, if he wants it. He’s coached high school and college football, and was not retained when Brian Kelly took over at LSU. He has the shorthand needed to communicate with Belichick, and is so invested in being a coach he was a part of the Bill Walsh NFL Diversity Coaching Fellowship program a few years back. Pepper Johnson, Troy Brown, and Jerod Mayo made the leap from former players to assistants under Belichick. Faulk is next man up.
Faulk said in 2020 that it takes a different breed to be able to make the transition from player to coach. At that time, it was a sacrifice he was ready to make.
“The thing to remember is that a lot of guys don’t necessarily have to or want to be coaches,” Faulk said when he was the running backs coach under Ed Orgeron at LSU. “You can have that football knowledge, but just want to go on and do something else. To be a coach, you do have to be able to sacrifice and give of yourself and start at the bottom again. Football knowledge is obviously important, but there’s more to it than that.”
Faulk recently endured an absolutely awful family tragedy, and might not want the job. But given the history, Faulk’s pedigree (which includes a recent induction into the College Football Hall of Fame), and the natural progression a move from Fears to Faulk would entail, that should be the first call Belichick should make if he’s looking to fill the position.
Fears’s departure would signal the end of an era, one marked by an unprecedented run of success. The best way to make sure the great days continue for the ground game in Foxborough? Call Faulk and offer him the keys to the running backs room.
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.