JUDGE: Smith left Buffalo far behind with big year for the Pats

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Clark Judge

The biggest improvement in this year's New England Patriots isn't quarterback Tom Brady. It's running back Antowain Smith. And it wasn't a trade, a suspension or an injury that put him in the Patriots' lineup. It was the classifieds. Smith answered a "Help wanted" ad. Let me explain. A former first-round draft choice of Buffalo, Smith was released last summer by the Bills in a cost-cutting move. At the time, there were six clubs interested — including Dallas, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington. But it was New England that attracted him, and it's easy to figure out why. Its running game stunk. "I wanted to come to a team where I would have a chance to start," said Smith, "and I felt New England offered the best chance." Give that man a star. The Patriots had no rushing attack. Kevin Faulk led the team last year with 570 yards and New England ranked 26th on the ground. Smith knew what the Patriots needed, and he was confident he could fit in. New England was, too, though let's be honest here: The Patriots were desperate at the position. Before making the move, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis studied videotape of Smith's last game with the Bills — a 42-23 defeat of Seattle where he carried for 147 yards and had three touchdowns — and liked what he saw. "It was evident from that he still could be productive," Weis said. If Buffalo had known how productive it wouldn't have let him go. But the Bills changed their coaches and front-office staff after last season, and there was a decision to go with youth — specifically, rookie Travis Henry — while opening room under the salary cap. Sure, Smith had supporters within the club, but he hadn't delivered what a first-round back should. So Smith walked. And when New England signed him to a one-year, $500,000 deal it acquired its best back since Curtis Martin. I know, Robert Edwards ran for 1,115 yards before suffering a career-ending injury after the 1998 season, but Smith is more effective. He led the club in touchdowns. He led it in first downs. And he had a career-high four 100-yard games in one season. But it's not the numbers that explain his importance to the New England Patriots. It's his presence. In 1995, the San Francisco 49ers let running back Ricky Watters sign with Philadelphia and tried to replace him with Derek Loville. While they made the playoffs and barely missed on gaining the home-field advantage, they fizzled in the divisional playoff game against Green Bay. Later, quarterback Steve Young criticized the decision to let Watters go, saying it wasn't the loss of a rushing attack that sabotaged the season but a loss of the threat of a rushing attack. New England has that threat in Smith, which helps to take the heat off Brady. "It opens the play-action," said Weis. "Think about it: You're a linebacker, and you have a 230-pound running back who averages four yards a pop. He steps forward; you have to step forward." Smith didn't step anywhere but out last year with Buffalo. Once the team's starting back, he fell so far down the depth chart he didn't play in five games in 2000. The problem, Smith said, was that the club's offense went in a different direction — leaning more toward the West Coast — and he didn't fit with it. "Every running back wants a chance to do his job," he said. "My last two years I didn't get a fair shot there." Still, Smith might not have gotten his chance if Pittsburgh hadn't blocked New England's attempt to sign restricted free agent Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala by matching the Patriots' offer. That kept New England combing the free-agent market for a back, with Smith appearing on the radar last June. The rest you know. "This style of offense is structured to what I do best," he said. "I'm not a flashy runner. I'm not going to give you a lot of moves because I don't have a lot of moves to give. I'm a straight north-south runner who will give you one cut and try to get the most yards I can get. If there's not a hole there, I'm going to try to make a hole. That's my job. I'm too big to run soft." He's not too big for New England. The Patriots needed a back like Smith, and now that they have him they should keep him. Smith's contract expires in a month, and he's already said he wants to stay with the Patriots. It will cost New England to keep him, and it should. Antowain Smith gave the Patriots the best year of his career. Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address, cjudge@foxsports.com.

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