Independently, Stevan Ridley’s red zone fumble that seemingly robbed the Patriots of at least three points and maybe seven in a 24-20 Monday night loss to the Panthers was just one play, and one of a handful of heavily dissected moments from an evening that might have New England sitting at 8-2 had it gone the other way.
On the whole, it was the running back’s second straight week with a squandered possession, his sixth fumble in his last 15 games, and the 10th mishandle (7 lost) in 44 career contests. Two have come in the playoffs.
There’s no disputing the durable and energetic third-year back’s production and ability when he hangs on to the ball – he has rushed for 2,439 yards and 21 touchdowns, missing only one regular season contest – but that carelessness and lack of a grapple hook or stickum for his gloves has resulted in turnover after turnover, with increasing regularity. And it’s been going on since training camp.
It’s fair to consider, given coach Bill Belichick’s popular distaste for giving up possessions, will Ridley be around in 2014?
That all depends on what happens the rest of the season, of course, and how forgiving the coach is along the way.
At this point, despite a slew of “RIP Ridley” tweets and others of that ilk following his latest gaffe, it appears Ridley is safe. Not his job, necessarily, but certainly his roster spot in 2013. Giving credence to the fact that it might not even take much to regain a heavy workload, the running back spent only 18 plays on the sidelines before returning for six snaps after his most recent miscue. That he returned at all says something, and it’s not because Belichick was in a good mood.
In the end, the game was defined by a penalty flag that wasn’t – a statistical figment of our imaginations, if not for the video evidence – so Belichick’s focus in his postgame session with the media was not spent on Ridley.
The former LSU back, however, did have to answer for his error.
“We had to play mistake-free football and me, myself, personally, I didn’t do that,” Ridley stated. “I gave it up down in the red zone and they turned that into three points, I think, and you look at how close the game ended up, so every drive is critical.
“Their defense has been driven all year off of turnovers, and that’s something that coach stressed to us coming into this game,” he continued. “To go out there and put it on the ground is unacceptable. I’m not happy about that, but that’s the game of football and it’s why we play the sport. I just have to keep going from this and try not to make the same mistake.”
He’s spouted similar sentiments before. How many chances does he have left?
Ridley’s contract is a bargain next season, and hardly a factor. The 24-year-old is due just $939,750 in his final year before hitting unrestricted free agency. But, he’s also a mere cog in a pass-first offense.
Laurence Maroney, a more acclaimed back as a first-round selection out of Minnesota but with a less productive NFL career, lasted four seasons in New England before the Patriots shipped him to the Broncos along with a future sixth-rounder early in 2010 for a fourth-round draft pick. It wasn’t just his injuries and inconsistent production that got him moved, though; he fumbled the football four times in his final year with the team in 2009.
This isn’t to say Ridley has to be his direct predecessor, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who didn’t relinquish the ball even once in his four years with the Pats – though he surprisingly has four times in less than two seasons with the Bengals – but ball security isn’t a subject taken lightly in Foxborough, especially when the problem becomes a growing concern, and not a shrinking one.
Belichick absolved the hard-running Ridley of blame for his fumble earlier this month against the Steelers, crediting Troy Polamalu for making a “tremendous play” and saying that “sometimes turnovers are a result of a real good defensive play.” It couldn’t have hurt either that New England thumped Pittsburgh by 24 points in its best offensive showing of the year. Admittedly, Ridley was a big part of that success with a season-best 115 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels added of Ridley, “If you didn’t make mistakes, this game would be a lot easier. But everybody does and it’s more important how we handle that going forward as opposed to trying to keep track of all these different things and penalize guys during the course of the game.”
Ridley, benched in the season-opener in Buffalo for his poor handle, was rewarded with another shot in Carolina, and fumbled again.
What will happen against the Broncos this weekend, and in the handful of games that follow? What will the running back’s fate be for next season? Moreover, can the Pats afford to be short-sided with him?
That’s for us to speculate, and a wonder he’ll try to alleviate.
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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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