FOXBOROUGH -- Stevan Ridley's professional football career is still young, a mere 21 games after the Patriots' 31-21 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday. But already he's acquainted with the disappointment of fumbling away an opportunity.
Here's hoping Ridley's familiar mistake Sunday isn't foreshadowing that it's about to happen again.
As a rookie a year ago, Ridley emerged as one of the more intriguing young players on a roster dotted with first- and second-year promise, running for 97 yards on 10 carries against the Raiders in his fourth professional game and closing out the regular season with three straight strong performances in which he totaled 210 yards on 39 carries. But in the finale against the Bills, he fumbled the football out of bounds, and two weeks later in the Patriots' AFC Division Round matchup with the Broncos, he coughed up the football with 8:46 remaining in the third quarter and the Patriots ahead, 42-7.
That was the last time Ridley carried the ball as a rookie. He was inactive for the AFC Championship Game victory over Baltimore, and dressed but did not play in the Super Bowl against the Giants.
With hindsight, wondering whether Ridley might have been able to make a difference in the 3-point defeat to the Giants is hauntingly irresistible. But the lesson from Bill Belichick was harsh and probably necessary given what was at stake:
You lose the football, you lose our trust, and you lose your playing time.
That cold teaching moment was dredged up again Sunday when Ridley spit up the football with 5:19 remaining and the Patriots trying to finish off the Broncos after a 31-7 lead had been reduced to 31-21.
The fumble did not prove disastrous, and Ridley would not be the Alcoa Running Back Goat of the Day -- that dubious distinction went to Denver's Willis McGahee, who dropped a fourth-and-1 pass that killed one drive (cue Manning ripping off his chin strap), then fumbled the ball right back to the Patriots after Ridley's blunder (cue Manning calling Edgerrin James's agent on the Broncos' behalf).
But it did prove to be his final carry of the day -- Brandon Bolden came on to close out the victory with three carries on the final clock-killing possession. And rather than punctuating his career-best performance (28 carries, 151 yards, 1 TD, and plenty of scene-stealing from the marquee Manning/Tom Brady showdown) with one more exclamation point, Ridley ended it as somewhat of a question mark.
Asked afterward whether he would remember the good or the bad from the game, he did not hesitate in his replay.
"The negative. Not going to lie,'' he said. "It was late in the game, you've got to close it out, you've got to run the football, and I told myself before that play that I had to hold on to the football. ... You can't make any excuses, I messed up.''
Presumably Ridley spent the offseason with the football glued to his hands wherever he went, just like the Omar Epps character in "The Program.'' So, sure, it is a disconcerting that he lost his grip on it Sunday, and you couldn't help but wonder had it happened earlier in the game when or if he would have returned to the field.
"I'm sure Coach is going to have something to say about it, but like I said there's always another day tomorrow,'' Ridley said. "So I'll be back to work and working ball security high and tight. And that's all I can do."
It's easy to get stuck with a reputation as a fumbler, and once you have it, it's tougher to shake than an unblocked Brandon Spikes. Ridley may be on the verge of getting slapped with such a label, but he doesn't deserve it. Sunday's fumble was the fourth of his NFL career in 202 touches. That's not great, but it's not Cleveland Gary putting the ball on the ground 12 times for the 1990 Rams, either.
In college, Ridley fumbled three times. Fumbling is a problem Kevin Faulk had early in his career and overcame, and it's something that never was a consideration with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who suddenly has the first two of his pro career this season in Cincinnati.
It's football. They hit each other hard. It's going to happen even to the most surehanded ball carriers.
Ridley still needs to prove that he can hold on to the ball under pressure, when the game's momentum is teetering in the balance and the defense expects the run. But even if Ridley is at the point now where defenses are on alert about his occasional inability to protect the football, Belichick should not and most likely will not bury him like he did last postseason. Because this much has changed: He's become essential.
The Patriots piled up 251 yards on the ground Sunday, the second straight week they've surpassed 200. The balance on offense -- Wes Welker had 13 receptions, Tom Brady threw for 233 yards, and the 35 first downs set a franchise standard -- was remarkable, especially when you remember that the last time they played the Broncos, Aaron Hernandez led the way with 61 rushing yards.
It is not an exaggeration to say this could be the most well-rounded offense they have had in the Brady/Belichick era, and yes, that includes 2007. The running game won't match what they had in 1976 or '78 in John Hannah's heyday, or even in the mid-80s with Craig James and Tony Collins. But it's a heck of a lot better than the tap-dancing Laurence Maroney gave them five years ago, and it could be the best they've had since Corey Dillon was at the peak of his powers.
Not that Belichick was about to agree to any such comparisons Sunday.
"I don't know. I think we're looking a whole lot different -- I'd say it's a lot different,'' Belichick said. "Scheme, multiple players, there's no Corey Dillon. It's a different style, different types of running plays, different style of runners.''
The different style of runners is what is making this work. The pieces fit beautifully, but only if Ridley is at the forefront. He is the closest thing they have to a prototypical feature back, a close-to-ideal combination of power and speed; three or four times a game he comes close to breaking one.
Five games into his career, Bolden (54 yards Sunday) is already established as another rookie free-agent steal. While he's not quite as powerful and has a little more elusiveness, it's impossible to watch him and not be reminded of his predecessor Green-Ellis. Danny Woodhead (47 yards on seven carries and one huge third-down conversion) is very effective when used in moderation. Even Shane Vereen chipped in with a one-yard touchdown run, prompting this comical postgame exchange between a reporter and Belichick:
Reporter: "What is it about Vereen that has you favoring him on the goal line?"
Belichick: "What are you talking about?"
Reporter: "The touchdown run that he had earlier."
Belichick: "He was in the game.''
The same couldn't be said for Ridley at the end. But despite his gaffe Sunday that jostled those memories of his gaffes as a rookie, it will be more often than not.
"It didn't end the way I wanted, but besides that I'm just thankful to be out there. Some thngs are going in my favor and some aren't,'' he said. ''For me, I just need to come back in here and get back to work. But we're going to continue to work hard. That's the only way they do it around here, and that's the team way."
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.