Part Two of an eight part series.
Is it possible to have a returning 1,200-yard rusher and still have questions about the running game?
Stevan Ridley didn’t disappoint in his first year as the Patriots lead back. He rushed for 1,263 yards, the highest total for a New England running back since Corey Dillon’s 1,635 yards in 2004. In 11 regular season games, Ridley surpassed 70 rushing yards.
Ridley’s momentum carried into the playoffs, as he had 82 yards against Houston and was getting stronger in the second half of the AFC Championship. But that momentum was stopped cold on Ridley’s 18th carry, when he tried to power through Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard.
Ridley lowered his head and his helmet collided into Pollard’s helmet. Ridley immediately went limp as he fell to the Gillette Stadium turf. Ridley was knocked out. Though he walked off the field, Ridley was done after finishing with 70 rushing yards, bringing his playoff total last season to 152 with 4.6 yards per carry, roughly on par with his regular season statistics.
He suffered a concussion on the play. And though Ridley recovered enough to appear on ESPN’s NFL Live about a week later, there should be real concern about Ridley’s ability to continue his career.
Anyone who suffers a concussion is more susceptible to future concussions. As a running back, head contact is unavoidable. It’s very possible that Ridley’s concussion was a one-in-10,000 hit and he will fortunately avoid future concussions.
If this concussion means another one is just a matter of time, New England should really be concerned about Ridley’s future as a pro.
The Patriots are very familiar with what concussions can do to one’s career. New England DT Mike Wright suffered concussions in 2010 and 2011. Both times he was unable to return for the rest of the season. The 2011 concussion happened in the season opener. Wright was placed on injured reserve after being inactive for four games.
In 2012 New England released Wright. He hasn’t played a down since nor has any team signed the free agent.
More relevant to Ridley is running back Jahvid Best’s story. A 2010 first round pick of the Detroit Lions, Best suffered four concussions dating back to his final collegiate game at California. Unable to find a doctor that would clear him to return to football, Best likely will have to retire. Best is just 24 years old, the same age as Ridley.
Hopefully, Ridley never suffers another concussion, because with him in the backfield, New England had the seventh-ranked rush offense in the league. The 2,184 yards was New England’s highest total since 2008’s 2,278 yards gained by the committee of Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, LaMont Jordan, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Matt Cassel, as the quarterback rushed for 270 yards..
Like that 2008 backfield, the 2012’s stable of backs has great depth. What sets them apart is the diversity of skills they have. Ridley and Brandon Bolden can pound it between the tackles. Danny Woodhead is an elusive scat back. Shane Vereen is a bigger, maybe faster version of Woodhead.
This quartet might be augmented in 2013. Woodhead is a free agent and could be attractive to other teams. But, even if the fan favorite wants to come back, New England might believe Vereen is an upgrade at third down back over Woodhead.
Vereen made his case with the show he put on in the AFC Divisonal game in place of the injured Woodhead with seven rushes for 41 yards and a touchdown and an additional 83 yards and two scores in the passing game, a department that is not Ridley's (7 catches in 18 games, including the playoffs) forte.
And don’t forget about Jeff Demps. Though diminutive (5’7” 175), Demps has world-class speed, making him the most explosive player on the Patriots. After spending a year on injured reserve geting into football shape, New England hopes to utilize the former track star in the backfield, as a receiver and returner.
Thanks to the depth at the position, New England should be fine if they lose Ridley, or anyone else for an extended period of time. But the Patriots will be better with a full stable pounding away and wearing down defenses.
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