After not suiting up for the AFC championship game or the Super Bowl, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley starts off the 2012 season coming off back-to-back games with a fumble (Week 17 and the divisional round of the playoffs).
After four years of the reliable Benjarvus Green-Ellis not once putting the ball on the ground, it's safe to say Patriots fans have become a bit spoiled. The expectation, or the hope, is that Ridley will follow suit in terms of sure-handedness. But even the best put the ball on the ground on occasion.
There are far fewer running backs that don't fumble all season long than there are running backs that do. This has become a cause of concern for Patriots fans.
But it shouldn't be.
It's going to take some time to fully earn back the trust of the coaching staff, but a closer look at the fumbles reveals that the problems are highly correctable.
In Week 17 of the regular season with the No. 1 seed the only thing left to play for, the New England Patriots were crawling back from a 21-point first-half deficit and had cut the lead to seven.
Why Ridley Fumbled
With defensive backs George Wilson and Aaron Williams closing in, one on either side, Ridley put forth a great effort to escape the two tacklers.
He was successful, but there was one problem: He was without the ball in his hands.
Williams's right arm reached out and made contact with Ridley's right arm, which was carrying the ball a bit too low.
How Can He Fix It?
It's tempting to look for the home run more often when you're trailing in the second half. That's a mental error that should clear up with experience: Even Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was once considered fumble prone for the very same reason, has reduced his fumbles total from 20 in the first three years to two in the past two years of his career.
To better emulate Green-Ellis, Ridley needs to avoid fumbles like this by getting both hands on the ball as contact approaches instead of looking for the home run.
Onto the other fumble...
The Patriots were blowing out the Broncos 42-7 in the divisional round of the playoffs. Ridley had carried the ball twice on the drive for 17 yards, including a six-yard gain where he held onto the ball despite being converged on by several Broncos defenders and an 11-yard gain where he slipped a tackle.
He showed the proper discipline by getting the ball "high and tight" as the defender came in for the tackle. But the next time he touched the ball, he couldn't hang on.
Interestingly enough, though, Ridley's next touch came as a wide receiver. He split out wide to catch a screen pass from Brady, who was in the shotgun.
Ridley was clearly not Brady's first read on the throw, as Brady surveyed the middle of the field for a solid 1.5 seconds before coming over to the left side of the field, where Ridley was waiting.
The ball was thrown well behind Ridley, who ran back to catch it. With three defenders closing in on him, he maximized his yardage and began falling to the ground.
Why Ridley Fumbled
He had the right idea in falling forward and in covering the ball with his body, but he didn't get both hands on the ball. There were, however, two other hands on the ball: one hand each of Broncos defenders D.J. Williams and Brodrick Bunkley. One punched down, one ripped up and the third jarred Ridley from behind, resulting in the ball coming out.
How Can He Fix It?
The same problem occurs here, where Ridley simply doesn't get both hands on the ball before the contact arrives. He tries to as the defenders make contact, but by that point it's already too late.
With three defenders hitting the ball all at the same time, you almost don't have a prayer of hanging onto the ball unless you have both hands on it.
Jeff Howe of The Boston Herald delved deep into Ridley's history with ball security:
Going back [to Ridley's days at LSU], Ridley fumbled once as a sophomore in 2009 and twice as a junior in 2010. In all, those three fumbles came on 323 touches (306 carries, 17 receptions) in 39 collegiate games. That’s one fumble for every 108 touches. Ridley’s only extensive play as the clear-cut No. 1 back at LSU came as a junior when he fumbled twice on 260 touches (249 carries, 11 receptions), which is one fumble for every 130 touches.
Let’s put that into some different perspective. The 15 NFL backs who surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in 2011 fumbled the ball a combined 51 times on 4,574 touches (4,033 carries, 541 catches). That’s an average of one fumble for every 90 touches.
Howe admits that the difference in the level of competition makes this somewhat of an unfair comparison, but it does provide context for his career to this point, and seems to indicate that last year was an anomaly and not a new trend.
It's all about the fundamentals and the speed of the game. The mind will revert to what's natural when the bullets are real, but the more these fundamentals are drilled into his head, the less likely he is to repeat the same mistakes again. Now that he has a year's worth of experience, he should be more ready to brace for contact before it arrives than he was last year.
Ask veteran running back Kevin Faulk, who had his own fumble problems early in his career, with 11 of them in his first three seasons in the NFL. Sure enough, he went on to correct them and finished his career fumbling only four times in his final six seasons.
So clearly, Ridley's story is not yet written. At this point, it's a Choose Your Own Adventure. But Ridley must learn from his past mistakes if he wants to get to the right ending.