By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
"Humble Pie" should be renamed to "Sony Pie".
Have even one brief conversation with Patriots rookie running back Sony Michel, and his humility will stand out to you. The kid practically refuses to give himself any credit for his success. And he's definitely been successful. He became one of just seven rookie backs in Patriots history to carry the ball at least 200 times, and among those players he finished with the highest yards per rush at 4.45.
But that's not the most impressive thing about Michel. What really impresses about the rookie is his willingness to conduct himself free of ego, for the sake of the team and not himself. Not that you want your players to brag about themselves, but Michel's willingness to go out of his way to praise his teammates is striking. For a skill player drafted in the first round, Michel is a unique case of a player who simply accepts his role as a single crew member on a 53-man ship. It's easy to see why Bill Belichick wanted him.
"Thats kind of how I try to keep things," Michel told 985TheSportsHub.com. "Just stay focused on what’s going on, not get too ahead of what’s going on. Just stay focused and keep working. That’s my mindset."
Michel's humility and work ethic have had a palpable effect on his teammates. His fellow backs are happy to see him produce. His offensive linemen deserve credit for how they block in front of him, but they want to block for him.
"He’s incredible. He’s a great back," right guard Shaq Mason said last week. "We’re glad to have him. He came in and from day one has put his head down and worked. Everybody is starting to see the fruits of his labor."
Michel worked in tandem with Rex Burkhead in the AFC Championship Game, a testament to the coaching staff to have them both ready to play their best football at this time of year. As one of the closest lockers to Michel's, Burkhead has felt the rookie's work rub off on him as much as anyone.
"Just his eagerness and willingness to come in and work his tail off [stands out to me]," Burkhead said. "He wasn’t a guy who’s really saying a bunch, going 'ra-ra' and all that. He came down willing to learn. James [White] and I tried to teach him the offense the best we could early on, and we’re still doing that. He’s done a great job.
"I’m not surprised by his production at all. He’s really learned the schemes well, learned the offense well, and continued to improve each and every week."
On the field, Michel excels the most at what you don't see. He sees the field well and reads his blocks consistently. He may break a big run and it'd be hard to figure out how he did it just by watching the film. It's usually a subtle move, just one little cut. It's his way of turning a modest gain into an explosive one..
Michel ripped off a 40-yard run against the Chargers in the divisional round, and it's easy to say it's all on the blocking. But it took a back with Michel's balance and lower-body strength to blow through a tackler at the second level, and his field vision and instincts to attack the right seams into the secondary.
Another thing you didn't see much with Michel is fumbles. After losing the ball once every 54.6 carries in four years at Georgia, he fumbled just once in 209 attempts as a rookie with the Patriots. For now, consider that red flag lowered.
"Ball security is job security," said Michel, echoing a familiar refrain. "That's the only way to keep your job."
Holding on to the football has been an underplayed aspect of Michel's improvement as a rookie. Every practice he's constantly dealing with scout team players trying to rip the ball out of his hands. The Patriots never had to take any drastic measures, like making him take the football everywhere he goes at the facility. It's just another unseen way his hard work has translated to the football field.
"You’ve got to love the kid for that," said running backs coach Ivan Fears. "I mean, first-round pick coming in. That's a lot of pressure. He didn’t let it go to his head. He’s just one of the guys. He’s just one of the group. And I think they love it. I know I love it. I think they love the fact that he’s willing to learn, he listens, he tries to do what you tell him to do, and he does the same thing with the older guys."
Michel has kept things simple throughout his rookie year, and it paid off handsomely in January. He rushed 53 times for 242 yards (a 4.6-yard average) and five touchdowns in the first two playoff games. The Rams are treating him like a key player to stop in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday. That certainly won't change the rookie's humble approach.
His power, vision, and discipline should continue to make him a productive back in the NFL. But it's his willingness to put the hours in and assimilate himself that's made his teammates want to see him succeed. That kind of success could reach a new level in the Super Bowl, and it would be a product of his consistent desire to work and improve.
Oh, the humility, too. Definitely the humility.
"That's all you need. Really, that's all you need," said Fears. "He’s got his own style, and what he is is what he is. Believe me, kid is going to be pretty good."
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].