Has Stevan Ridley Worn out His Welcome in New England?

Sean KeaneCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Running back Stevan Ridley #22 of the New England Patriots avoids a tackle by outside linebacker Danny Trevathan #59 of the Denver Broncos  during a game at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

In Stevan Ridley, the New England Patriots have one of the NFL’s most gifted running backs. 

He plays with violence, explosiveness and elusiveness.  He makes decisive cuts, grinds out tough yards in traffic and finds open space remarkably well.

He also fumbles.                       

All running backs fumble from time to time.  Even former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis—who never lost a fumble with New England—has five giveaways in 29 games since leaving to join the Bengals.

Reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson already has five fumbles on the season after losing four during his incredible 2012 season.  In fact, Peterson, in his seventh season, already has 31 fumbles on his resume.

Ridley, unfortunately, is no Adrian Peterson.  For all his gifts, he doesn’t even approach Peterson as a once-in-a-generation talent.  The only area where Ridley is on his level is that pesky penchant for fumbling.

Since taking over lead duties in the Patriots’ backfield, Ridley has lost eight fumbles in 27 regular season games, plus another costly turnover in last season’s AFC Championship game.

It’s a problem and it’s getting worse. 

With four turnovers this season, Ridley’s already matched his total from last year, but with barely half the total touches.  In fact, Ridley’s issues are growing more troublesome with each passing season.

Stevan Ridley fumbles per touch (regular season only)

It’s a real shame, because he’s by far the most talented pure runner on the Patriots.

So the question remains: has Ridley worn out his welcome in New England?

The short (easy?) answer is of course not.  Any team in the NFL would be glad to have a running back with his skills and proven production.  He’s averaged 4.5 yards per carry over his career and has 19 touchdowns over the last two seasons.

Those fumbles, though, are on the verge of completely undermining everything else Ridley brings to the table.  I asked the oldest, truest and longest-tenured Patriots fan I know—my dad—for his thoughts on Ridley.  His response?

“He’s a stumbler, he’s a bumbler, he’s a midniiiiight fumbler.”

Yes, that was a spontaneous and unprovoked adaptation of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” and yes, he sang it with verve and gusto.  More importantly, that sentiment sums up Ridley in a nutshell.  No matter what else he contributes, he’s proven to be a turnover in waiting.

It’s easy to feel for Ridley.  The fumbles clearly bother him.  But he’s not doing enough to fix the problem.

As Bleacher Report’s own Erik Frenz broke down last month, the vast majority of Ridley’s fumbles happen when he only keeps one hand on the football at the point of contact.  For whatever reason, he hasn’t learned to secure the football with two hands in traffic.

It’s such a simple concept, but one that has cost the Patriots dearly.

Ridley's backup, LeGarrette Blount, keeps the ball secure with both hands ready to cover it at the first sign of contact
Ridley's backup, LeGarrette Blount, keeps the ball secure with both hands ready to cover it at the first sign of contactStew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

If Ridley were fumbling innocuously or in blowout performances, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.  Instead, he’s coughed up the ball in critical situations and hurt his team. 

Last season, with the 49ers in town, the Patriots were driving in San Francisco territory when Ridley fumbled at the 31-yard line.  Not only were the Patriots already in field goal range when the 49ers recovered the loose ball, but San Francisco scored a touchdown on the very next play.

That’s a potential 10-point swing in a game that the Patriots lost by seven.

That trend continued into this year as well.

Against the Bills in the season opener, Ridley took the handoff at Buffalo’s 26-yard line and fumbled without even being hit. This time the opposition didn’t wait until the next play to score, instead returning the fumble 74 yards for a touchdown.

The Patriots pulled out the win, but Ridley was benched for the rest of the day following yet another two-score point swing.

Ten weeks later Ridley was up to his old tricks when the Patriots took on the Panthers in Carolina.  With the ball on Carolina’s 13-yard line, the Patriots were poised for a score.  That is, until they gave Ridley the ball.  He lost it once again by failing to protect it with two hands in traffic, and he cost the Patriots another scoring chance.

The Panthers drove into Patriots territory to kick a field goal.  That’s at least a three-point swing, with the strong chance of being a six, or even 10-point difference.

The Patriots lost by four points but had the ball deep in Carolina territory to end the game.  If Ridley hadn’t fumbled they likely would have been down by one, needing a short field goal to win.  Instead they were forced to try for the end zone and came up short on a pass-interference flag that was mysteriously picked up as time expired.

Ridley wasn’t done there, though.  The very next week in a game for the ages, he took a hit at the Denver Broncos’ 40-yard line and lost the ball again.  Von Miller scooped it up and took it to the house for a touchdown.

It was Ridley’s third straight game with a fumble lost.

Thanks to one of the most miraculous comebacks in team history, Ridley was off the hook for another loss.  He was also off the active roster in Houston the following week, instead wearing street clothes and clutching a football on the sidelines.

When he fumbles, it doesn’t just hurt the team, it costs them games.  Even when the Patriots pull out close wins, they’re winning in spite of Ridley, not because of him. 

To put the affect of his struggles into focus, let’s say for example that he didn’t fumble in Carolina.  The Patriots would most likely have won that game and would now be tied with the Broncos at 11-2. 

Since they beat Denver head-to-head, the Patriots would hold the tiebreaker for the top overall playoff seed in the AFC and have the inside track on home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Instead they’re a game back with three games to go, and would need to travel to Denver should the two clubs meet again.

Ridley is still welcome in New England, but his fumbles aren’t, and one way or another they won’t last much longer. 

Either he figures things out and learns to hold onto the ball, in which case all will be forgiven, or he’ll be shown the door, along with all those fumbles.