CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- First, the red football jersey, the "no contact" cautionary flag in which Laurence Maroney had been adorned for most of training camp, came off earlier in the week. And then on Friday night, the New England Patriots took the training wheels off their second-year tailback, turning him loose in his first preseason action of the summer.
The results: The club's first-round choice in the 2006 draft, and a player who spent his rookie season in a time-sharing arrangement with the now-departed Corey Dillon, looks ready to carry the load for a team with legitimate Super Bowl expectations.
"This was something I really needed, you know, confidence-wise and everything else," said Maroney after rushing for 58 yards on 15 carries in a 24-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers. "I wanted to get my feet back on the ground, and I did. It's one thing to feel good in camp, to feel like you're (making) progress. But to be ready for the season, you have to do it in game conditions."
Even before the game, there were broad hints from a couple New England officials that the team's game plan included a heavy dose of Maroney, early and often, and that was exactly the case.
The former University of Minnesota star, who played in 14 games but started none in 2006, carried on the Patriots' first seven offensive snaps. He was on the field for three series, 19 snaps in all, and logged rushes on 15 of them. Each of New England's first three possessions commenced with at least three straight Maroney rushing plays.
It's a workload, Maroney said, to which he could grow accustomed. And one that, with Dillon having been released in the offseason, he might be asked to assume.
New England is solid enough behind Maroney on the depth chart, with three dependable veterans, but the Pats' offense might still lack a true No. 2 tailback.
Sammy Morris has only one season of 100 carries, in 2004, in his career. Over seven seasons, he has averaged just 53.4 rushing attempts. Heath Evans, who also plays some at fullback, has never registered more than 57 carries in a season. And Kevin Faulk, still one of the NFL's best but most overlooked utilitarian backs, and a clutch performer on third down, hasn't had more than 54 carries in a year since 2003.
The New England staff doesn't seem particularly troubled by the apparent lack of a definite No. 2 guy, and that might be, in part, because the Patriots always seem to find a way to get the most out of their role players. One other reason might be that Maroney, at least on Friday night, looked capable of handling a 300-carry season.
"I thought he did some all right things," said coach Bill Belichick, who typically offers praise in grudging portions. "But he still has a long way to go."
If he runs during the season like he did against the Carolina defense, Maroney will go a very long way in 2007.
Last year, he carried 175 times for 745 yards and six touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes for 194 yards and one score, and averaged 28.0 yards on 28 kickoff returns. But he suffered what was believed to be a rib injury against Detroit on Dec. 3, was inactive for the next two games, then totaled just 25 touches in the final two contests. This spring, he underwent shoulder surgery and faced a relatively lengthy rehabilitation, thus the need for the red "hands off" jersey in camp.
Against the Panthers, though, Maroney showed little effect from the shoulder surgery, and he certainly wasn't trying to protect the injury. While he appeared tentative on his first few efforts, Maroney quickly got into the flow. He ran hard and showed terrific cutting ability and, at times, surprisingly quickness.
Mostly, though, he showed that, for a New England offense that will still need a running-game component even with all the upgrades in its passing attack, he is capable of shouldering the load.
"My biggest concern was how the shoulder would hold up, and it (was fine)," Maroney said. "I didn't have any problems with it. It felt good to get back out there and test myself again, to get a read on my conditioning. I think I'm ready. If they want to give it to me, I'm ready to take it and run."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.