LeGarrette Blount finds NFL refuge

PHOENIX -- With shards of red, white and blue confetti raining down upon him following the AFC Championship Game, New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount drifted through a mass of bodies to find his family. He wore a white, oversized championship T-shirt that stretched over his shoulder pads and a gray baseball cap that made it hard to see how much his eyes beamed. By the time Blount found his relatives in the chaos, he could see how touched they were by his first trip to the Super Bowl.

"They were more emotional than I was," Blount said. "They were all crying, and I didn't have any tears in my eyes."

The swell of emotions from Blount's loved ones had plenty to do with the road he traveled before helping New England to a 45-7 win over Indianapolis in that AFC title game.

Blount was out of a job just a couple months ago, having been released by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 18. He also was perceived to be damaged goods because his dismissal resulted from how poorly he handled a diminishing role with the Steelers. Given how much New England prides itself on a combination of hardcore discipline and a team-first approach, it seemed unlikely Blount would land with a franchise primed to reach its sixth Super Bowl in 14 seasons.

But there the 28-year-old Blount stood in the middle of that victory celebration, with a wide grin stretched across his face and television reporters lining up to interview him. Instead of talking about being at his fourth stop in five seasons, he was explaining how he gained 148 yards on 30 carries and scored three touchdowns.

"It's been a great feeling, and I've definitely been blessed," Blount said. "It's a surreal feeling knowing that you're actually going to the Super Bowl and that I've been a big part of us getting there."

The Patriots may have bigger names involved in their success -- namely head coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski -- but Blount quickly has emerged as a critical wild card in their championship hopes. As prolific as Brady has been over the course of his career, it's worth noting that the Patriots won all three of their Super Bowls when they had a bruising power back in their offensive arsenal. Whether it was Antowain Smith (2001, 2003) or Corey Dillon (2004), the Pats' ability to bash opponents via the run opened up their passing game in those days. At 6-foot and 250 pounds, Blount will present a different challenge to a Seattle Seahawks defense that ranks among the best in NFL history.

Blount has the muscle to bull through defenders. He also has enough agility to make cuts that leave defenders grabbing at air and enough speed to pick up huge chunks of yardage once he reaches the second level. In many ways, Blount is New England's answer to Seattle Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch. The longer the game goes on, the harder it becomes to bring him down.

When asked about Blount, Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said, "He has a little bit more juke to him [than other big backs]. I think he's able to stop on a dime. ... You just have to be ready because he can shake you and he can run you over, so you're going to have to be perfect on tackling."

Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels added that Blount "has a unique ability to use his quickness and his footwork to create extra yards when he has the ball in his hands. ... He's a guy that can definitely run inside, but also does a lot of things on the perimeter. He's tough to bring down and has the ability to make people miss in the hole, which I think is a unique trait for a bigger back."

Said Belichick: "You don't see a lot of guys like him. You just don't. I thought a couple of cuts he made [in the AFC Championship Game], the way he can stop, start, accelerate, change directions -- for a 250-pound guy, he's got great vision and athleticism. At times, he looks like a small back, but he's not."

What's just as impressive about Blount is how well he fits in his second stint with the Patriots. He was a valuable contributor to the team in 2013, as he ran for 772 yards and enjoyed two huge games late in the year (he had a team-record 334 all-purpose yards in a win over Buffalo and set another team mark with four touchdowns to go along with 166 rushing yards in a divisional playoff win over Indianapolis).

But when the Steelers dumped Blount, observers had to wonder if he was too toxic for New England to give him a significant role. He had lost his job in Pittsburgh largely over questions about his professionalism: After getting no carries in Pittsburgh's 27-24 Monday night win over the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 17, Blount was so upset that he left the field before the end of the game.

The Steelers released Blount the next day despite having signed him to a two-year, $3.85 million contract in March. Blount already had one strike against him after Pittsburgh police arrested him and Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in August. When Blount pouted about his lack of opportunity in that Titans win, it was the last straw. As Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey told reporters, "If you don't want to be here, don't be here. He had a decision to make as a man, and he made it. You know the consequences."

Blount wouldn't discuss in detail what happened in Pittsburgh, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin couldn't be reached for comment for this story. But Blount did say, "Things just didn't work out as planned, and we decided to part ways. I didn't know what was going to happen [after the Titans game], but we talked about it and thought that it was best to separate."

That incident was the second high-profile misstep Blount has had during his football career.

The first came during his senior year at Oregon in 2009, when the Ducks suffered a season-opening loss at Boise State. Blount was walking off the field when former Boise State defensive end Byron Hout walked up to him and asked, "How's that for an ass-whoopin'?" A split-second later, Blount threw a straight right hand that knocked Hout down and turned Blount into the most notorious college player in the nation.

Oregon head coach Chip Kelly ultimately suspended Blount for the bulk of that year, allowing him to play in only the Ducks' final four games (after Blount apologized to Hout, Boise State, his Ducks teammates and the entire University of Oregon). No NFL team thought Blount was worth taking a chance on in the 2010 draft. He made Tennessee's 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie but was later waived.

Blount's reputation was so bad that his father, Gary, said, "They made my son out to be some kind of beast."

But there was more to Blount than that altercation. There was the straight-laced kid who didn't smoke or drink when he attended high school in Perry, Florida, and was kept on such a tight leash that one of his divorced parents would pick him up after dances. There was the loving father who once stripped off his T-shirt and clutched his son, LeGarrette Jr., to his chest after doctors said the boy was getting cold in his hospital bed after birth (Blount had hoped to warm the child with his body heat). There also was the contrite athlete who practiced on the scout team at Oregon instead of leaving school after his indefinite suspension, working with such fervor that he seemed like a walk-on trying to earn a scholarship.

Blount had his flaws -- he had weight issues at Oregon and also received a two-month suspension for missing offseason workouts -- but he also had enough positives that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers claimed him off waivers during his rookie season. Despite sitting for most of the first three games, Blount ran for 1,007 yards in becoming just the second undrafted rookie in NFL history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark.

"He was a big back, so we fed him the ball and he produced," said former Bucs general manager and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik. "But then the lockout came the next year, and like a lot people who have success early, LeGarrette thought he had things figured out. He became a player who was hot and cold."

Blount ran for 781 yards and five touchdowns the following season after the NFL labor dispute was resolved, but he received only 41 carries in his third year. That season was also the year Tampa Bay replaced head coach Raheem Morris with Greg Schiano and rookie tailback Doug Martin emerged as an explosive weapon (1,454 rushing yards, 11 TDs). Before long, it was apparent Blount's future wasn't in Tampa. The Bucs traded him to New England for running back Jeff Demps and a seventh-round draft pick.

When asked about all the bouncing around during his career, Blount said he never lost hope.

"I knew I could play football," he said. "And I knew it was a matter of time before I had the chance to show what I could do. It worked out for me, but I also understood what happened in Tampa. We had a new coach and he wanted to go in a different direction."

One topic that comes up when discussing Blount with people who know him is his likability. Roger Carr, his junior college coach at East Mississippi, described Blount as a player who "isn't a problem kid." Carolina Panthers tight end Ed Dickson played with Blount at Oregon and once claimed that his former teammate "was one of the quietest guys on the team." Dominik added: "The punch from college isn't LeGarrette. He likes to have a fun time, and he can laugh at himself. He's definitely not somebody who is into himself."

That personality -- and Blount's punishing running style -- had to play a role in Belichick's willingness to bring the fifth-year pro back into the fold. Patriots running back Shane Vereen didn't even know the team had re-signed Blount until wallking into the locker room a couple of days after Blount's release in Pittsburgh and finding him sitting silently at a locker.

"He was just sitting there chilling," Vereen said. "As soon as I saw him, his eyes lit up, and so did mine. It was like he'd never left. L.G. was close with damn near everybody. We all love having him here."

A comments like that means even more considering that Blount's presence has cut into the carries already being shared by Vereen and his fellow Patriots runners. Ever since Blount's return to the Pats, he has received the bulk of the rushing attempts (his average of 12 carries per game is more than any other New England back) and found an immediate comfort zone in the offense.

"I was playing from the first game I got here," Blount said. "They kept it pretty simple for me. They just said to be ready when the carries come your way."

Dominik has also noticed maturity in his former player's game. "He's definitely better in pass protection now," Dominik said. "That was a big thing when he was with us -- whether we could trust him to make the right reads when he had to block for a quarterback throwing the football. LeGarrette has always had talent. But sometimes talent and dedication are two separate things. When he can put the two together, he's great."

The Patriots hope Blount can make that combination work again for at least one more game. The Seahawks devoured the last AFC team they faced in the Super Bowl -- destroying Denver 43-8 last year -- and their defense has led the NFL in scoring defense for three consecutive years.

But if there has been one area in which Seattle has looked mortal defensively, it has been against the run. Dallas (behind DeMarco Murray's 115 yards), St. Louis (85 from Tre Mason) and Kansas City (159 from Jamaal Charles) all found ways to beat Seattle by having success on the ground.

Given how well Blount has played lately, it's likely that he'll find himself in a similar position for New England. He may have taken a circuitous route to the Super Bowl, but he also has found a place where he finally belongs.

"What I like about this team is that it's family-oriented," Blount said. "Everybody looks out for each other. That's why I feel so comfortable here. I feel like I just have to do my part and everything will be fine."