Sometimes, the message needs to take a backseat.
With Shane Vereen out until nearly Thanksgiving, fellow running backs Brandon Bolden and Leon Washington limited at this week’s Patriots practices following undesired off-days against the Bills, primary receiving options Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski reportedly unlikely to play, and a slew of rookies still catching on to the NFL game, this is one of those times. This is definitely one of those times.
When the Patriots host the hated Jets on Thursday night, Stevan Ridley must be the top option at running back, his opening week performance be damned.
Yes, he fumbled. Almost twice, as the first was negated. The carelessly dropped ball that did count against him midway through the second quarter was returned 74 yards for a touchdown after he slipped untouched and coughed up the ball when he hit the ground. Despite rushing for 46 yards on only nine carries prior, he deserved to watch the remainder of the game from the sidelines, and he’s fortunate that his team bailed him out.
Had the versatile Vereen not broken a bone in his left wrist on his very first play in Buffalo before helping to carry the Pats to a win with a career performance – 101 rushing yards on 14 carries, along with seven receptions for 58 yards – then he would certainly be deserving of his second career start. However, some bad fortune intervened, which made his efforts all the more impressive. Shane Falco would have been proud.
In benching Ridley, the turnover-intolerant Bill Belichick made his point. The message doesn’t need to carry over into the early stages of what may be a tougher-than-anticipated test with the Jets, given the Patriots’ lack of key offensive personnel. Now it’s about doing what is best for the team.
Moreover, some level of status should come into play. Ridley will never be Tom Brady, but he isn’t a rookie or new to the team either. The third-year back rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, totals that ranked him inside the top-seven in the league in both categories. He also fumbled five times between the regular season and playoffs, a total that felt like 100 after his predecessor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, never relinquished a ball in his 57 games with the Pats (though he did three times in his first year with the Bengals), but he was otherwise tremendous and rarely subsequently punished for his faults. In Ridley’s four games following a fumble in 2012, he averaged 17.8 carries per contest, a tick below his 17.9 average on the year.
Unfortunately, fumbling can be a hazard of the position that has afflicted even some of the game’s all-time great running backs early in their careers. The biggest cause for concern for Belichick and his coaching staff was the manner in which the two balls were lost on Sunday. They were inexcusable and sloppy. Ridley would have had a firmer grasp on the football had he been playing Hot Potato with it. He should be holding onto the ball with the protective fortitude that he would a newborn. Well, maybe not quite as tight.
To his credit, Ridley owned up to his gaffes after the victory. He said the right things, refusing to make excuses while pledging to work harder, and now he must do the right things with his next opportunity. With four fumbles in his last seven games dating back to last season, eight in his young career, and a shoddy training camp, his chances may be running out.
“Every player has the same responsibilities every week,” Belichick told the media. “Be ready to play, be ready to go. That’s their job. They can’t control coaches’ decisions. They control their preparation and they control their performance when they’re in the game.”
“I know Stevan is a very mentally tough kid,” said Brady, who was far from perfect in his own right over the weekend with a lost fumble on the goal line and an interception. “I love having him back there. I love giving the ball to him and watching him run.”
While that’s all probably true, Brady is undoubtedly in Ridley’s corner for one selfish reason as well; the Pats’ chances of winning are better with him on the field.
The immediate devil’s advocate response is, of course, “Not if he’s turning the ball over.” Clearly. But that’s not going to happen after what occurred in Buffalo, at least not without the Jaws of Life trying to rip that football free.
If not Ridley, the choices are thin without Bolden (knee) or Washington (thigh) at full-health, if either plays at all. In fact, only one man remains in LeGarrette Blount, who has fumbled nine times in his three-plus seasons and proved little more than big and slow in his New England debut with just 15 yards on seven carries. One of the three may have to step up in Vereen’s absence as the club’s passing-back alternative, but even Blount knows who deserves the featured rushing duties.
“He’s our starting guy,” the veteran said of Ridley. “You’re going to have bad games. You’re going to have costly mistakes, and that goes for him and anybody else on our squad. It doesn’t mean he’s going to go out here and fumble in every game two times. It’s just really discouraging to go out there and feel like they turned their back on you. Nobody’s gonna do that. We’re going to go right back to him this week.”
Even if the coach won’t announce it, the decision is clear. What happens next, as Belichick did say, is up to Ridley.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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