Back on Sept. 11, a few days after the Patriots' narrow season-opening win in Buffalo, New England coach Bill Belichick was asked in his weekly interview on WEEI about the future of Stevan Ridley, who was benched after a second-quarter fumble against the Bills.
“Stevan’s a good player,” a matter-of-fact Belichick stated. "I thought he ran well. We have a long way to go. We’re going to need him. I’m sure he’ll contribute a lot for us this year.”
A lot has seemingly changed in the last few months.
When the 9-3 Pats host the 4-8 Browns on Sunday in Week 14 of the NFL season, it’s unknown at this point if Ridley will be in the lineup.
Asked on Monday if he was sending his back a message, Belichick said, “If I have a message to send to somebody, I’ll just sit down and talk to them and tell them what it is. There’s no sending a message.”
The coach added that his team just tries to win games and that the 46 active players represent the group best capable of making that goal a reality.
So, do you buy it?
It’s easy to say Belichick isn’t attempting to send Ridley a message by holding him out because he was already benched twice before enduring an inactive on his resume. If the message to hang onto the damn ball needed to be sent, that happened some time ago.
But does benching Ridley help the Patriots or actually hurt the team?
On one hand, the carelessness, butterfingers, bad luck, good defense or however we’d like to label his four fumbles have cost the Pats points on each and every occasion. The team is admittedly 3-1 in those games, but the job isn’t any easier with free points or possessions for grabs with every loose ball. His ability to produce aside, he’s a liability if he’s losing control before helping his teammates to first downs or the end zone.
On the other, there’s no debating that Ridley is the club’s most talented and explosive option in the backfield. The Patriots are missing his quickness, consistency, and overall skillset when he’s not on the field. The former LSU star is not necessarily the game-changer Shane Vereen is, given his versatility as a pass-catcher, but that option exists with or without Ridley, who’s more of a first and second-down back.
Historically speaking, it’s been a down-year for Ridley, though his ball-security issues have obviously played a direct role in his numbers. As a sophomore in 2012, he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in 16 games. He carried the ball for at least 70 yards on 11 occasions. This season, Ridley has eclipsed 55 yards in only three of his 10 games while rushing for 576 yards and seven scores.
However, his average gain has been consistent from 4.4 yards per carry last year to 4.3 currently.
Alternative options LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Vereen have rushed for six scores and 860 yards on an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, but much of that success has come as a complement to Ridley.
In a Week 6 loss to the Bengals, which Ridley missed with a knee injury, Blount and Bolden combined for 55 yards on 17 attempts on the ground, an average of 3.2 yards.
Last weekend, when the Patriots rallied to beat the lowly Texans, Blount and James Develin both scored TDs, but the running-back-by-committee quadrant managed just 88 yards on 27 carries for a 3.3 average effort.
Any number of facts can affect a running game from week-to-week, whether it’s the opposing defense, the weather, the game plan, or a host of other elements, but efficiency is the bottom line.
Even in a passer’s league with a top-tier quarterback like Tom Brady, a quality second option from the backfield provides balance and is often instrumental to a team’s success when the games matter most.
Ridley may see limited playing time in the regular season’s remaining four games (represented by a relatively light schedule) and subsequent postseason. Despite the year left on his contract, the third-year back may also be looking for a new home next season.
But, maybe, just maybe, he’ll get another shot at the starting gig. The Patriots are a better team with Stevan Ridley and, eventually, they’re going to need him again. Holding him out until that time is only a detriment to his rapidly-depleting confidence as the pressure he puts on himself continues to mount.
Hopefully he won’t drop the ball if his name is called.
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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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