By the end of 2013, the typically high-flying New England Patriots offense had transformed into a throwback ground-and-pound outfit. While the depleted Pats overachieved in reaching the AFC Championship Game, their general lack of firepower made them true Super Bowl long shots.
This year, continuity and a healthy (for now) Rob Gronkowski should rejuvenate the passing game. But while Tom Brady and Co. should rectify last season's inconsistencies, it is unclear if the ground game will remain as dependably prolific as it was last winter.
With late-season hero LeGarrette Blount long gone, the early-down onus now falls on fourth-year pro Stevan Ridley. Ridley plateaued after a breakout 2012 season, and his persistent fumbilitis represens one of New England's greatest concerns.
The trio of Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and James White figure into the backfield mix as well, but none bring the same physical, downhill, between-the-tackles running style as Ridley. Despite constantly vacillating in and out of Bill Belichick's doghouse, Ridley is not only the Pats' most talented runner, but the back most likely to maximize their offensive potential.
Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Ridley's Foxborough tenure has reached a crossroads. Diving deeper into both his strengths and weaknesses, let's examine why a bounce-back campaign from Ridley could turn the Patriots into the league's most dangerous multidimensional offense.
Unfortunately for Ridley, it is impossible to discuss his game without starting (and often ending) with his fumbling issues. Ridley has fumbled nine times over his three-year career, including four in each of the past two seasons (excluding the postseason).
We'll get to a deeper inspection of his 2013 fumbles in a second, but first, it's worth examining how much of a problem this really represents. Bill Belichick's lightning-quick hook for Ridley has no doubt colored the perception surrounding the back. Before we bury Ridley's fumbling as a catastrophic problem, we should at least see how chronic the issue really is.
As someone with just three seasons in the league, Ridley should be on the upswing. But at least at first blush, it makes sense to think that fumbling issues could derail that promise. To test the validity of that sentiment, let's look at the running backs who have fumbled the most over the first three years of their career, limiting the time frame from just 2000-2013, per Pro-Football-Reference:
As we can see, Ridley does not even come close to making a dent in the top 10. In fact, he ranks in a tie for 23rd with the likes of Shaun Alexander, Jamaal Charles and Maurice Jones-Drew, among many others. The list of worst young fumblers might give Pats fans some encouragement, as many of those are marquee names. In fact, six of the 10 rank among the 13 best running backs of the millennium in terms of PFR's Approximate Value metric.
Of course, Ridley has been part of a committee his entire career, whereas many of the top fumblers were workhorses whose touted the ball much more frequently. In 46 career regular-season games, Ridley has accrued 555 carries. Using the same parameters as before, let's take a look at where Ridley ranks among backs who have not exceeded that attempt total:
This is less encouraging, as Ridley has now broken onto the list, albeit at the bottom. More importantly, the running backs here are not nearly as impressive. While some like Charles and Jones-Drew overcame their early woes to become All-Pros, the list is also riddled with first-round busts (Wells, Green), flash-in-the-pans (Slaton, Brown, Bell) and active players whose careers currently sit in various degrees of limbo (Spiller, Tate, McFadden).
It's a scattershot record, so it's best to turn to the film and evaluate Ridley as an independent case (it's also an imperfect back-of-the-envelope study, since it does not account for fumbles from receptions). Examining his four fumbles from last year, I subjectively saw these two as definitively Ridley's fault due to poor technique:
His first fumble against the Buffalo Bills on opening day was arguably the worst of his career. Ridley is not even contacted, simply losing his footing and falling to the ground. The impact comically jars the ball loose a split second before he is downed, allowing Da'Norris Searcy to return the gaffe for a touchdown and preserving Ridley's place in NFL Films' football follies archives.
The fumble against the Denver Broncos was more a case of poor technique, as his blind spin move left the ball uncovered. He was unlucky that linebacker Wesley Woodyard's helmet happened to collide with the ball while he was still spinning, but Ridley made himself vulnerable to that misfortune in the first place, a fact he himself acknowledged at the time.
There was also an instance where I blamed Ridley for the fumble, though that opinion appeared debatable:
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short made a heady play to land a paw on the ball, so one could argue that the fumble was simply a result of Short's power. However, a closer look reveals that Ridley let the ball hang at his side as he juked, violating the unimpeachable "high-and-tight" mantra:
There was only one instance in which I concluded that Ridley's mistake was certainly not his fault, which came in Week 9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers:
It's debatable as to whether Ridley even had possession of the ball long enough to be considered a catch, which led to Belichick challenging the play. Falling to the ground, Ridley's downward momentum made Troy Polamalu's life easier. Blame that one on the laws of physics more so than Ridley.
Still, the overall picture is not particularly favorable. We've seen that young backs who fumble as Ridley has on a per-play basis do not typically pan out. And while these technique issues above are correctable, it is alarming that Ridley has continued to repeat his errors, the ultimate sin in Foxborough.
We cannot conclude whether or not Ridley will fix his technique and stop the self-inflicted errors, so it's best to prepare for the worst and assume that he won't. Moving forward with the assumption that Ridley will still fumble on a semi-regular basis, is he even still a valuable player to the Patriots?
Don't Call it a Comeback?
Based on the title of this piece, you can likely ascertain my opinion on that dilemma. Ridley regressed in 2013, but as we'll see, his short leash from Belichick may have exaggerated that decline.
The surface statistics illustrate a steep decline from 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns to 773 yards and seven touchdowns. But those counting stats aren't particularly useful, since he did also receive 112 fewer carries. Indeed, his yards-per-attempt average only fell from 4.4 to 4.3, hinting that he was similarly effective on a per-play basis.
There's some conflicting data to that hypothesis. On one hand, Pro Football Focus' Signature Stats (subscription required) reveal some alarming per-play stats. Ridley has garnered fewer yards after contact over his three-year career, and his breakaway percentage (the percentage of his yardage stemming runs of 15-plus yards) has also declined:
|Year||Yards after contact/attempt (NFL rank)||Breakaway Percentage (NFL rank)|
|2011||3.05 (21)||46.3% (6)|
|2012||2.47 (23)||25.0% (26)|
|2013||2.18 (27)||18.3% (36)|
via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
While some of the PFF numbers suggest that Ridley's performance was in the lower third of the league on a per-play basis, Football Outsiders portrays a different picture. FO's two main individual player statistics are Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Average (DYAR). You can go here for a full explanation of both, but essentially, DVOA measures per-play value, whereas DYAR measures cumulative value.
Rather than computing raw numerical outputs like the PFF stats, FO considers Ridley's value in relation to a replacement-level running back. Viewing Ridley's career through this lens, FO shows that Ridley may have actually been better on a per-play basis, even if his cumulative numbers suffered as a result of his benchings:
|DVOA (NFL rank)||6.1% (9)||10.2% (9)|
|DYAR (NFL rank)||192 (8)||135 (11)|
via Football Outsiders
Ridley did not accrue enough carries during his rookie season to qualify, but for the sake of comparison, his per-play success rate was 0.1 percent below average (DVOA), while he ran for 31 more yards than the average running back would have given his environment (DYAR). That would have ranked 29th in DVOA and 34th in DYAR among running backs, a far cry from where he has ranked the past two years.
All these fancy numbers are nice, but what do they mean? Headed into this time last season, the arrow on Ridley was undoubtedly pointed up. I penned a piece wondering if the Pats could center their offense around him, and others were generally optimistic about him. In short, there was little to suggest that Ridley was not going to become New England's best early-down power back since Corey Dillon.
No one seems to harbor that enthusiasm anymore, but considering that he essentially replicated his per-play production, that sentiment does not make much sense. The media is a powerful influence that often causes public opinion to sway too far from the truth—see Romo, Tony—so it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest that all the furor surrounding his benchings has fostered the widespread ambivalence headed into 2014.
Belichick is unfailing in his mission to maximize his team's probability of winning, so it's not as though he undertook a personal smear campaign against Ridley. Quite simply, he had a better alternative in 2013. Looking at the running back corps this year, Belichick and the Patriots might not have that luxury again.
A Unique Weapon
Ridley may have compiled similar production, but in LeGarrette Blount, the Pats had a running back with a similar skill set who also took care of the ball. According to PFR, Blount was second in the league in rushing yards from Week 15 on, thus validating Belichick's decision to choose the unheralded veteran over Ridley. It's impossible to fault Belichick for having his cake and eating it too.
But Blount is long gone, and consequently, Ridley is the back most capable of exploiting the downhill gap-blocking concepts that represented the lifeblood of New England's injury-depleted offense last year. Barring an unexpected rise, the drop-off from another prolonged Ridley benching could be much steeper this season.
Brandon Bolden is the Patriots back with the nearest approximation of Ridley's skill set. However, he is far more limited athletically and is best when used in sporadic doses. While arguably the Pats' most powerful back, Bolden does not possess Ridley's balance and vision, which often leads to lost yardage. On this play, a meager-looking one-armed tackle brought down Bolden right as he began to accelerate through the hole:
And while Ridley is not a burner like some of the other New England backs, he has enough speed to reach the edge on outside-zone principles. The outside zone is a critical component of the Patriots playbook, as it is their pet running play when their uptempo offense is operating at peak speed and efficiency.
Bolden is a nice complementary back capable of shouldering a secondary load while also contributing as a core special teamer. But as he demonstrated on this run, the Patriots playbook would shrink if he became the primary early-down option:
Shane Vereen may end up playing more snaps than Ridley this season, but the vast majority of his runs consist of inside draws. In 2013, Vereen received more than five carries in just three of the 10 games he suited up for (postseason included); not coincidentally, Ridley was benched for all or most of each game.
In researching film to see Vereen's performance on power runs, I could barely even find a handful of plays in which the Pats called those concepts for him. Vereen is a dangerous back who will be an integral cog in the offense, but that reveals plenty about how the Patriots prefer to utilize him.
By process of elimination, James White represents the likeliest source of leverage against Ridley. Perhaps Belichick recognized this when he touted the fourth-round rookie as more than just a third-down back, per ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss. That's the correct sentiment from Belichick; while White may be more Vereenian in his skill set, we should not hastily pigeonhole him into the same role before he even records his first official carry.
But while the Pats have given White early-down looks, the rookie has yet to reward that faith, accruing just 51 yards on 18 attempts, good for a 2.8 yards-per-carry average. That's not entirely indicative of his ability, since the New England offensive line is in flux, leading to problems for all the running backs. Still, a near-replication of 2013 Trent Richardson is not going to earn White many carries.
Blount was not a surefire option at this time last year (though he was more impressive in the preseason), so perhaps someone will emerge to put heat on Ridley. At the moment, however, the embattled back stands out as a distinctive weapon in the offense.
The discourse surrounding Ridley focuses on his fumbles—which ones were his fault, how they can be corrected and how much they dent his value. Only a fool would deny that those fumbles are a problem, but as we have revealed, they have not totally submarined his value.
What will Stevan Ridley's role be in 2014?
That's not to suggest that it's wrong to focus the microscope on Ridley's ball security. It's the top priority for every running back, and in the interest of maximizing potential, it makes sense to harp on Ridley's most glaring weakness.
Unfortunately, constructive and meaningful criticism becomes unnecessarily difficult in an environment where #HotSportsTakes mentalities generate clicks. Surely no one is actively trying to vilify Ridley, but considering the negativity surrounding him, it appears that that has been the end result nonetheless.
There is still time for Ridley to reverse the butterfingers narrative, but even if he doesn't, the Patriots will have one of the league's better downhill runners for roughly 61 out of 62 carries. Ultimately, Ridley remains an asset whose presence maximizes New England's offensive diversity.