He arrived, as many future Patriots standouts do, with little fanfare, a transaction few probably cared about even in New England.
It was Dec. 31, 2014, when the Patriots signed Dion Lewis, some pint-size running back who had been drafted by the Eagles and hadn’t even played an NFL game in two-plus years.
Little could anyone know Lewis would become the Patriots’ feature running back heading into Super Bowl Sunday against those same Eagles.
“It’s definitely been a long journey,” Lewis said.
The former University of Pittsburgh running back overcame yet another injury and patiently waited his turn for two more seasons before finally experiencing a breakout.
In New England’s final 10 regular-season games, Lewis averaged 15 carries and 74.5 rushing yards, scoring eight touchdowns, including three receiving and one kickoff return.
“He’s done such a great job,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “When he got here, there were a lot of people kind of vying for that spot, and he really took advantage of it.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has a long history of unearthing these gems. Some are former stars who’ve fallen on hard times (Randy Moss, Corey Dillon, LeGarrette Blount, etc.). Others are unheralded players just waiting their turn (Wes Welker, Malcolm Butler, David Andrews).
Cornerback Eric Rowe is another former Eagle who landed in New England. Philadelphia traded him to the Patriots after the 2016 preseason for a conditional fourth-round draft pick. Now, Rowe is heading to his second Super Bowl. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the eighth-best slot cornerback in the league this season at defending the pass.
Why is it Rowe, Lewis, Danny Amendola and others seem to play the best football of their careers for the Patriots?
“I think it’s just the attention to detail that we stress every day, starting in April,” Rowe said. “The little nuances that they stress get in the back of your head, so when it comes up, it’s like second nature, so it just elevates your play.”
Winning helps. Players are quick to buy into Belichick’s belief system because he’s already won seven Super Bowls, either as an assistant coach or head boss. For the most part, New England players check their egos at the door.
Lewis kept the hot hand in the Patriots’ first playoff game, racking up 141 combined rushing and receiving yards against Tennessee. The accolades kept coming about what a difference-maker he is.
Then, in the AFC Championship Game, he was more of a nonfactor. He rushed only nine times for 34 yards and added a mere 32 yards receiving. He had a costly fumble but redeemed himself with a 18-yard run on third-and-9 to seal the Patriots’ win.
“As a football player, you’re always competitive, you always want to be out there,” Lewis said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to put the team first. We’ve got one more game left, and nobody really cares about your stats. They just want to get this win.”
Belichick does his homework on players before they get to New England, making sure they’ll be a good fit. With Amendola, Belichick got a strong recommendation from Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who knew him from the Rams.
With Lewis, Belichick listened to former Patriots assistant Mike Lombardi, who had been Cleveland’s general manager when Lewis broke a leg, halting his development.
“When you see somebody on the practice field on a daily basis and you’re around them, you know a lot more about them, especially a player like Dion who you didn’t get to see on the field a lot,” Belichick said. “What you saw was good, but it just wasn’t very much.”
The 5-8, 195-pound Lewis had been traded from the Eagles to the Browns in 2013 and wasn’t healthy enough to show Cleveland what he could do. Once in New England, Lewis started making headway in 2015 only to tear the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He needed a cleanup procedure in August 2016 season before finally hitting his stride later that year.
This season, he showed what he could do at full health, with his quick cutting ability. His next challenge will be Philadelphia’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense. Payback time?
“I wouldn’t say it’s because of who we are playing,” Lewis said. “I always try to keep a chip on my shoulder just to go out there and prove what I can do.”