"Do your job."
It's a mantra that gets thrown around a lot with the New England Patriots.
There are very few things Patriots head coach Bill Belichick likes more than dependable football players, but there are even fewer things he likes less than players who are not dependable.
Patriots running back Stevan Ridley fell into the latter category in Sunday's win over the Buffalo Bills, and his lack of dependability made him a liability in the eyes of the head coach, who benched the workhorse back for the remainder of the game in favor of fellow third-year back Shane Vereen.
Everyone—players, coaches and Patriots fans—know that ball security is imperative.
In fact, this isn't even the first time in the past 20 days that ball security—and benching as a result of a lack of ball security—has been a topic of discussion at a Belichick press conference.
Three Patriots players fumbled the ball in the team's third preseason game against the Detroit Lions: running backs Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden, and tight end Zach Sudfeld. None of them played again in that game after their fumble, but Belichick said it wasn't about sending a message.
Our message has been the same here from day one that ball security is of the highest priority for anybody that handles the ball—that's a message from day one. I think that message has been delivered on a daily basis since we started practicing back in May. I don't think there are any new revelations about that message. Ball security is very important to anybody who handles the ball in any situation. There can be no mistake about the importance of it. There can be no mistake about that message. That message has been delivered ad nauseam.
For a player like Ridley, who has fumbled the ball eight times on 434 career touches (regular season and postseason combined), that message is even more important.
And if Ridley doesn't get the message, he may not get the ball.
His fumble on Sunday against the Bills was inexcusable. Not only did he go down untouched, but his grip on the ball was so loose, it came out the second his arm hit the ground.
He had an opportunity to fall on the ball, but he was hit from behind by linebacker Kiko Alonso while he tried to do so. Ridley was probably caught off-guard after he slipped, but at that point (and at all points from here on out), his first priority should be to not lose the football.
That, for a running back, falls under the mantra of "do your job."
On the other side of the coin, Vereen put on a clinic of ball security following Ridley's fumble.
Every time a defender drew close, Vereen immediately put two hands on the ball to prevent having it knocked free. Perhaps he learned his lesson from his preseason fumble, or perhaps he only needed to watch Ridley get sent to the bench.
Either way, Belichick can consider his ad nauseam message to be received by at least one of his backs.
The Patriots encountered a small problem on Sunday, however, as reported by Jay Glazer of Fox Sports:
So, we know how Ridley's fumbles affected the game plan on Sunday, but Vereen's injury may give Ridley another crack at the job as the team's workhorse back. Still, the coaches are treating it one game at a time.
"Stevan needs to do a better job of holding onto the ball, and he knows that," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on Monday. "We will work hard with him on that, and he’ll work hard as well to make sure that we don’t do that anymore, but I think any decision on the future or what is going to happen this week or next week, I don’t think those have been made yet. Our job as coaches is to work with our players to improve the things that they might not be doing as well as we want them to do, and to try and get better. Ultimately, we will try to play the best guys that give us the best chances to win."
If the Patriots feel like Ridley's fumblitis is inhibiting their chances to win games, he will likely not be a big part of the offense at running back—whether it's LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden or Leon Washington getting the carries in Ridley's place.
What does history tell us about Patriots running backs that fumble the ball? The most recent example is Laurence Maroney, whose ball security issues caught up with him toward the end of his time in New England.
From 2006-2008, Maroney had 512 regular season and postseason touches, and he fumbled the ball just twice (0.4 percent). In 2009, he had 208 touches and fumbled four times (1.9 percent). Maroney was traded the following season.
That doesn't mean Ridley will be traded (especially not with Vereen injured), but the outlook isn't good for him if he continues to struggle maintaining possession of the football.
Ridley will have to start by earning back the trust of his coaches, something he seems determined to do.
"It was pretty obvious, man, you can't have two turnovers in one game and expect to stay in," he said, according to Field Yates of ESPN. "The coaches had to do the best move for the team and make sure we won this game, and they picked the players that they went with and we rolled through and we're lucky to pull out the win like we did."
The question, at this point, is how much patience will the Patriots have with Ridley while he works on his ball-security issues.
Maybe it's just a one-and-done situation, where Ridley's mistakes will be forgotten when the Patriots suit up for their game against the Jets on Thursday.
If Ridley's fumbles are a sign of things to come, though, he can't expect the Patriots coaching staff to have a lot of patience.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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