Will Stevan Ridley kick down the door to stardom in 2013?
However, the 2013 passing game arrives with more uncertainty in Foxboro than Patriots fans have seen in years.
Though Brady remains an elite quarterback, free agent defections, combined with injuries and off-field turmoil, have thrown his receiving corps into complete disarray. If neither Rob Gronkowski nor Aaron Hernandez can start the season, Brady will begin the year without his top five receivers from 2012.
Still, it may not all be doom-and-gloom for the Patriots. Lost in the panic is one undeniable truth: New England possesses its best running game under Brady since the days of Corey Dillon.
That emergence, of course, is largely due to Stevan Ridley, who was one of the Pats' biggest breakout stars in 2012. After years of plodding backs like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Sammy Morris, the former LSU Tiger was refreshingly explosive, rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in just his second season.
But now, even that performance may not be good enough. For the first time in a decade, the Patriots might have to reshape themselves as a run-oriented offense. If that happens, can Ridley carry the load well enough to keep the Pats offense humming along at its lofty levels?
Ridley's second season placed him in some fairly mixed company. Here are three questions that will determine whether Ridley is more Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers or Natrone Means and Marion Butts.
Is Ridley Durable Enough?
This is probably the easiest question for Ridley to answer. Other than an ankle injury at the beginning of his rookie season, the sturdily built running back has been healthy in both Foxboro and Baton Rouge.
Of course, that excludes the vicious Bernard Pollard hit that concussed Ridley in the AFC Championship game last season, although he appears fully recovered from that.
Nevertheless, this is the first time he'll have to carry a heavy workload in back-to-back seasons. At LSU, Ridley played sparingly in his first two seasons before becoming a featured back his junior season. Following that, he had just 87 attempts in his rookie season.
Can Ridley stay healthy if the Patriots need a 300-carry follow-up season?
Though Ridley played just 44.8 percent of New England's offensive snaps last year, according to Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston, the Pats' absurd number of total offensive snaps skews that number. He did carry the ball 290 times and held up until Pollard's hit.
For what it's worth, Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald tweeted that Ridley added a noticeable amount of muscle this offseason in anticipation of his increased workload:
Stevan Ridley looked like a house today. He's added a noticeable amount of muscle. Might be even more difficult to tackle in 2013.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) May 2, 2013
One of Ridley's greatest strengths involves making quick and decisive cuts, so as long as his muscle mass doesn't interfere with his agility, his bigger size should be a positive for 2013.
However, it will not be good enough if Ridley is simply on the field more often next season.
Can Ridley Be a Consistently Effective Workhorse?
However, a closer look reveals a running back who appeared to wear down as the season went on.
Ridley's attempts per game and yards per game steadily declined each month (with November is thrown off by the Pats' bye week). The monthly splits of the league's best workhorses like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch reveal backs who became stronger as the season went on.
Though those comparisons may seem unfair, Ridley must at least show similar consistency to become a true "workhorse."
Perhaps, more concerning were Ridley's splits in close games. As the table illustrates, his yards per carry and touchdowns all plummeted in one-possession games, but it's not as if Ridley did not get opportunities in tight games, as his 132 carries indicate.
It wasn't all bad. Against Miami in Week 13, Ridley struggled mightily before bouncing back to rush for 46 yards on a crushing seven-minute, 18-second fourth quarter drive that effectively sealed the game. Still, that kind of clock-killing effort was more the exception than the rule in 2012.
In the fourth quarter, Brady was unbelievably clutch last season, bailing the Patriots out of several close games. If Brady and his receivers are not functioning at the precision required to execute in high-pressure situations, New England needs a reliable alternative.
Ridley must prove he can provide that option.
Of course, Ridley's biggest obstacle to late-game success lies in the one nagging flaw that has dogged him throughout his first two seasons.
Can Ridley Correct his Fumbling Issues?
There's nothing more important than possession of the ball. We can't afford to lose it. It's as simple as that.
Those were Bill Belichick's words, per Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, after the Patriots hung on for a Week 5 win over the Denver Broncos. But Ridley's late-game fumble nearly allowed Denver back in the game, and it encapsulated the most troubling pattern in the young running back's career.
It was fitting that the fumble overshadowed his career-high 151-yard performance, as Pats Nation has worked itself into a tizzy at times worrying about Ridley's ball security. But has Ridley been a victim of bad luck, or is there something in his technique that needs fixing?
It's worth noting that in 306 collegiate carries, Ridley fumbled just three times, according to Matthew Geagan of CBS Boston. One theory could be that Ridley is simply adjusting to the NFL's far greater physicality, a notion supported when realizing that his fumbles tend to come later in games. Fatigue may have contributed to technique breakdowns like this and this.
If that's the case, then perhaps Ridley's additional offseason muscle will allow him to take more punishment without wearing down as quickly. As Kevin Saleeba of Scout.com notes, Ridley wouldn't be the first great Pats running back to suffer fumble issues early in his career:
Granted, Ridley fumbled twice, but running backs fumble. Even the great ones fumble. In 2004, while Corey Dillon rushed for a Patriots franchise record 1,635 yards, he also tied a career season-high with five fumbles that year. The previous team record holder was Hall of Famer Curtis Martin in 1995, who rushed for 1,487 yards, but he also had five fumbles that season.
In addition, Kevin Faulk fumbled nine times in his first two seasons. Of course, all those players eventually figured things out, and it would certainly help if Ridley's fumbles didn't tend to arrive in bunches. But at this point, it would be a surprise if Ridley ever developed a Tiki Barber-esque "fumblitis" issue.
The Big Question
Ultimately, all of this begs the overriding question: Is it good for the Patriots if Ridley is their primary offensive threat?
The Patriots were a more-balanced offense in the early 2000s, with an overall pass-to-run ratio of about 53-47 from 2001-2004. But those Patriots teams possessed an overwhelming defense, and though their 2013 defense is their most talented version in years, they still have yet to show tangible results.
While having a good running game never hurts, it is telling that the last five Super Bowl champions have finished 11th, 32nd, 24th, sixth and 23rd, respectively, in total rushing. Although six of the top 10 rushing teams made the playoffs last season, it is usually the team with the best quarterback that prevails in the postseason.
Last year's champs might provide a good blueprint for New England's offense this season. While Ray Rice carried most of the offensive load in the regular season, the Ravens did not become a truly Super Bowl-caliber team until Joe Flacco's emergence as an elite option at quarterback.
Ridley's best-case scenario likely involves him taking pressure off of the passing game, as Brady develops a chemistry with his new receivers, making the opposition respect the Pats' running game to open up space and play-action as defenses crowd the box.
But while Ridley may get New England to the dance, it is Brady who must shine the brightest if the Patriots are to finally capture that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring.
Unless otherwise cited, all stats courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com