After falling short of expectations in first 4 seasons, Patriots' Maroney plans to run harder

Laurence Maroney's dreadlocks were bunched together with a rubber band, not the most attractive way to display that hairdo.

A few feet away, another Patriots running back, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, stood with his dreadlocks flowing freely.

"His probably looks better," Maroney said of his close friend. "There's no point in trying to look pretty for camp. This is probably going to be my new style for the year. Rough. This is my statement. Rough.

"That's how I've got to be on the field. Rough. I can't go out there being all pretty because then you're all going to say I'm dancing."

Critics have been saying that ever since 2006 when New England drafted him in the first round out of Minnesota.

The rap against him is that he wastes too much time in the backfield looking for holes, running from side to side. Can't he just attack the first opening he sees?

This season Maroney wants to eliminate those criticisms.

"I'm not trying to be on, what's that dance show they've got on TV? 'Dancing with the Stars?'" he said with his ever-present smile. "I'm physical. Downhill."

Maroney improved on that last year when, for the first time in his four seasons, he didn't miss any games because of injuries. He rushed for nine touchdowns but ran for only 757 yards and a 3.9 average carry in 15 games.

"I feel like I ran the ball harder than I ever ran," he said. "I felt comfortable running the way I ran last year, had some good successful games running. Now it's just basically taking what I did last year and bringing it to this year and improving on it."

If he had done that earlier — and avoided injury — the Patriots might not still be operating with a running back by committee.

In 2007, Maroney missed three games with a groin injury and led the team with 835 yards rushing, but four teammates combined for more carries. In 2008, he missed 13 games with a shoulder injury. Last year, he started five of 15 games and led the team with 757 yards rushing, but had fewer carries than the total of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor and Green-Ellis.

All four are back in training camp, competing with Maroney for playing time.

"As a group, I think we're able to step up and even toward the end of the season we got really thin at running back (and) Kevin's asked to do a little more than he had before," Morris said. "I think it's just a testament to the kind of guys that we have. There's no job that's too little or trivial for us."

As a rookie, Maroney learned from Corey Dillon, who led the Patriots in rushing that season. But most of the other five running backs drafted in the first two rounds in 2006 have been more productive, even though Reggie Bush (picked second) was the only player at that position chosen before Maroney (21st).

DeAngelo Williams (27th), Joseph Addai (30th) and Maurice Jones-Drew (60th) all have more combined yards rushing and receiving. Only LenDale White (45th) from those two rounds has fewer than Maroney.

Even Marion Barber, who shared time with Maroney in Minnesota's backfield and was drafted in 2005, had more total yards in his first four seasons than Maroney has in his.

But Maroney is just 25 and healthy now. He still can lean on his fellow running backs for advice.

"I've got a lot of veterans (who have) done a lot of great things in their time that I can learn from," he said. "I feel real comfortable coming into my fifth year."

He was frustratingly inconsistent in his first four.

Last season, he didn't rush for more than 32 yards in any of his first five games. Then he broke loose for 123. But he followed that with games of 43, then up to 82, down to 31 and up again to 77.

"That's the biggest thing around here," he said. "You can come out here and play one or two good games but you've got to be consistent throughout the whole year. So that's my main goal, just stay consistent."

And stop dancing.