Before training camp began, the Detroit Lions released 2010 first-rounder running back Jahvid Best. He was supposed to be Detroit’s offensive weapon: an elusive running back with the speed to create explosive plays, the hands to play anywhere on the field and the savvy to line up at receiver.
But concussions cut short a promising career. Best suffered up to four concussions in the NFL. Last season, Detroit’s doctors wouldn’t clear him to play, and he missed the 2012 season. He played just 22 games.
With two seasons under his belt, Stevan Ridley of the New England Patriots has already played in more games (29) than Best did in his career. The third-year player gave the Patriots the best season by a running back since Corey Dillon’s 1,635 yards. He comes into this season atop the running back depth chart with Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount pushing for playing time.
Ridley is also coming off a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game.
A devastating hit knocked Ridley out cold. He had lowered his shoulder/head, intending to power through oncoming Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, but Ridley’s body went limp upon contact. He had to be helped off the field.
Ridley doesn’t have a history of concussions, so it could be that he was hit the wrong way one time. But it’s hard not to worry about his future following Best’s release and New England’s experience with Mike Wright.
Wright’s career began as a rookie free-agent defensive tackle out of Cincinnati, but he worked his way to interior pass-rusher on passing downs and was leading the Patriots in sacks with 5.5 through nine weeks in 2010. But a concussion in Week 10 changed the course of his rising career.
Wright finished the season on injured reserve. The next year, he suffered another concussion in the season opener and missed the rest of the season, finishing a second consecutive season on IR. New England released Wright after the 2011 season.
New England’s experience with head injuries might help the training and coaching staff evaluate concussions and properly help a player recover from them. Applying such knowledge to Ridley’s concussion could have the former LSU Tiger healthy and poised for greater success.
He comes into this season with a little more bulk, hoping it improves his endurance for 16 games and beyond and makes him better in short-yardage situations and at finishing runs stronger.
He is aware that Bolden and Blount, who are both better at breaking tackles, are threats to take carries away from him, and Ridley isn’t giving the ball up without a fight. Ideally he will become a more physical runner without losing his quickness, an ability that neither Bolden nor Blount can match.
A thicker Ridley also comes with added risk. He’s already subjected to plenty of helmet contact while running between the tackles. It’s an unavoidable occupational hazard. He likely will absorb more hits as he grinds out additional yards with his added strength.
Not that he thinks about the risks. He has a job to do.
A running back who runs in fear will be out of the league quickly. As good as Ridley’s 2012 season was, he could be even better with the offense possibly needing a bigger contribution from the running game.
The Patriots could start the 2013 season without their top five receivers from last year. As quarterback Tom Brady and his new receivers work on developing chemistry, the running game may have to shoulder a greater burden, with Ridley taking the lead.
That’s unfortunate for Swope and the others whose careers were cut short by concussions, but that may not apply to Ridley. The risk is always there, but it won’t prevent him from striving to improve on his breakout 2012 season.
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