PHOENIX – It's not the big conspiracy theory that everyone is talking about. There are no footballs, equipment managers or surveillance tape. But it's still a question that New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount can't answer with a straight face.
Did Blount engineer his release from the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this season because he knew the Patriots wanted him back? Did someone tell him he had a job waiting for him? Is this Super Bowl a reward for a twisted scheme?
On Tuesday, Blount repeatedly reacted to those questions with little more than Cheshire grins and half-hearted denials. One exchange in particular:
"Did you know you had a job with New England before you left Pittsburgh?"
Long pause. Big smile. No answer.
"Why would you leave if you didn't know in the back of your mind that they were waiting to call you?"
Big smile. Subtle laugh.
"I didn't know nothin'," Blount said.
One more laugh.
It wasn't exactly convincing. And this is why there are those within the NFL community who continue to maintain that Blount's self-induced meltdown and subsequent banishment from Pittsburgh was orchestrated toward a pre-determined end: Get out of Pittsburgh, slide back into New England. Correct a free-agent mistake that never should have been made in the first place.
It was no secret that Blount had an issue with his role in Pittsburgh almost immediately. After signing with the expectation that he'd share a sizeable part of the rushing load, Blount was arrested with running back Le'Veon Bell and booked on marijuana-related charges. That moment was particularly troubling in the Steelers organization because Bell was known as a good egg, whereas Blount had a checkered history during his football career.
Following that incident, Blount started off with only seven carries in his first two games. And things got worse after a 10-carry, 118-yard rushing effort against the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 21. Conventional thought was that Blount would carry a greater load after that game. Instead, he followed it up with four carries in a 27-24 loss to a bad Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. From that point on, his role in the Steelers offense was clear: He was a guy who would occasionally spell Bell, and would rarely have a larger role installed for him.
What most didn't know over the course of that time – and what Blount revealed Tuesday – was that he was in consistent contact with former teammates in New England. That included the Patriots' onetime lead running back, Stevan Ridley, who Blount described Tuesday as being "like a little brother." Ridley knew exactly where Blount's head was when his role was being diminished in Pittsburgh.
"I stayed close with a lot of guys," Blount said. "I stayed close with Ridley. I stayed close with Shane [Vereen]. I stayed close with all of my running backs. I stayed close with Devin [McCourty]. I stayed close with a lot of guys. Like I said, it's a close-knit team. It's really like a brotherhood.
"They supported me through everything that I've been through."
And when Ridley went down with a season-ending knee injury in mid-October, rendering the Patriots with a hole at running back?
"He's one of my closest friends," Blount said. "When he went down, I was probably one of the first guys to contact him, and made sure he was OK."
Over the next five weeks after Ridley's injury, Blount carried the ball 28 times for 53 yards, including zero in his final game for Pittsburgh – a 27-24 win over Tennessee on Nov. 17. That final game caused Blount to snap, ending with him walking off the field before the game had ended, and straight to the team bus without showering. He was cut one day later.
Was Blount nervous? He'd just lost his job and committed an unforgivable sin in the NFL – abandoning his team in a fit of selfishness. Amazingly, Blount said he wasn't even remotely concerned.
"[My agent] was telling me, 'Just chill,'" Blount said. "I wasn't worried at all."
Apparently for good reason. In a stroke of tremendous luck, the Patriots came calling one day later. He had a new job in New England's backfield within 48 hours of being jettisoned by the Steelers. And the very first guy to call him from New England management? Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
How long did New England wait to call him after Blount was released by the Steelers? Blount smiled, laughed and ignored that question. What did Belichick say to him?
"He just said, 'Be ready to go,'" Blount said.
And he was. He snatched up the job of Jonas Gray, who did nothing but run for 200 yards and four touchdowns in a game before Blount arrived. In his seven games since arriving in New England, Blount has 93 carries and six touchdowns, including a monster 30-carry, 148-yard, three touchdown effort in the victory against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game.
With his first career Super Bowl only days away, some would call that remarkably good fortune. Blount doesn't really call it anything. He just smiles and laughs, with the sound knowledge that he knows how everything went down – and you don't. He even ran into two former Steelers teammates Tuesday – cornerback Ike Taylor and defensive end Brett Keisel. There was no awkwardness. Just some former buddies catching up.
After all, why would it go any other way? Blount is innocent. As he said when asked if he forced his way into the Patriots' waiting arms: "Naaaah."