Adam Kaufman

To No Surprise, Patriots Make Right Call to Keep Stevan Ridley

Stevan Ridley 6.jpg

The Patriots were awfully busy on Saturday, releasing 19 players with resumes ranging from veterans down to undrafted free agents.

To no surprise, Stevan Ridley’s name was nowhere to be found on the list.

Here’s a question: Why would he be?

The fumbles? Puh-lease.

Yes, Ridley’s tendency to cough up the ball over his last two seasons – a total of nine fumbles, including seven lost to the opposition – has aggravated coach Bill Belichick, likely irked teammates, and caused fans to pull their hair out. A dropped ball in the preseason against the Eagles didn’t help. But there’s no escaping one overwhelming reality.

Absent Ridley, there is simply no better option.

First-year running backs Jonas Gray and Roy Finch were both cut loose, leaving a depth chart that currently includes a pass-catching Shane Vereen, an injury-plagued Brandon Bolden, an untested and preseason underwhelming rookie in James White and, if you’d like to include him, fullback James Develin.

Ridley is young (25), cheap (he’s due $939,750 in the last year of his rookie contract), durable (he’s missed only one game to injury in three seasons), quick and explosive between the tackles and, as important as the aforementioned criteria, he’s an established, proven NFL running back.

In 2012, Ridley fumbled four times on 290 carries, an average of one dropped ball per 72.5 attempts. In the process, he rushed for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns during the regular season. That postseason, the LSU product fumbled once more on the way to 152 yards and a score in two contests.

Yes, Ridley can be careless with the ball, sometimes cradling it like a loaf of bread rather than possessing the protection one might offer a newborn. But, fact is, most running backs – even some of the best – do fumble.

A lot.

Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris, and Reggie Bush – all coming off 1,000-plus yard campaigns – each fumbled five times last season. That’s one more time than Ridley gave up the ball. Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, and C.J. Spiller each equaled Ridley’s total of four dropped carries.

Skeptics will rightfully point out that Ridley accumulated his four fumbles on fewer chances in 2013 – one per 44.5 attempts – but the 773-yard rusher’s lost balls resulted in lost opportunity. His 4.3 yards per carry were on par with his 4.4 average a year earlier. His play was admittedly shakier but, when given the opportunity, the back remained productive.

This year, Ridley will be efficient again – or he’ll at least be given every opportunity to keep his job. White may in some parts be known as the one who knocks, but Ridley will have to have more than a ball or two knocked loose early in the season to relinquish his role to a rookie.

Who would you prefer? BenJarvus Green-Ellis? Don’t get too attached to the past.

The newly available, recently released former Bengal and long-time Patriot is no longer that guy who never fumbles. The Law Firm is 29 and, after four years without a drop in New England, he gave up five balls in two seasons for Cincinnati. The jury is out on whether he could return but, be sure, it won’t come at the expense of Ridley.

Tom Brady’s offense is filled with question marks, either related to health, past production, or protection entering the new season. Adding an inexperienced or ill-chosen option at the running back position, particularly without a viable backup plan, would be one more unnecessary headache. Irresponsible even.

Even with a top-five quarterback in Brady, the running game can’t be ignored. Including the postseason, the Patriots were 10-1 with an average of 163.8 yards on the ground when eclipsing the 100-yard plateau in a game last year. When the Pats failed to reach 100 rushing yards, they went 3-4 with an 80.1-yard average.

Success from the backfield still matters and that stems from the man receiving the bulk of the carries. Ridley has earned the opportunity to be that guy and hasn’t done enough to justify losing out.

Belichick and the Pats still have some tough decisions to make. More roster moves will follow between now and the regular season opener in Miami on Sept. 7.

Ridley won’t be involved in the paperwork; he’ll be readying himself for Brady’s first handoff of 2014.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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