New England Patriots fans have always pointed to the arm of Tom Brady as the key to the offense over the last decade. It’s not surprising that the offense is defined in such a way with such a high-profile quarterback under center and a number of big name receivers in the fold.
Through all the success in the air, the running game has become somewhat of an afterthought. The role of the Patriots running backs in fans’ eyes is to provide red zone scores and first downs off short yardage opportunities. In reality, the running game has been an integral part of head coach Bill Belichick’s team since 2000.
Since Belichick’s first season, the Patriots have ranked as low as 28th in 2002 and as high as sixth in 2004 and 2008 among NFL team rushing leaders. While it probably did not deserve or desire the recognition in its poor seasons, the team still did not receive the recognition in its more successful years, as they lacked a lead running back with star power like their quarterback.
Early on during his tenure, Belichick used veterans like Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon to handle the majority of the carries, but their impact was relatively low. Since then, there has been a gradual shift to a committee of situational backs, like last year’s grouping of Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk, which produced surprisingly good but unmentionable results.
The need for an impact runner has been a team priority for years, but they had yet to find that player to fill the role. To have a top running attack to pair with Brady would help to bring balance and expand the offense. That impact runner may have finally come in the form of back Stevan Ridley.
Ridley, a third round pick out of Louisiana State University in the 2011 draft, showed flashes of his ability in short work last year. He had 441 yards on just 87 carries, good for 5.1 yards per carry, which was better than the team average of 4 yards.
Ridley came into the 2012 season as a beneficiary of a full offseason of team workouts, which he was not allowed last year, due to the early season lockout. That, and the loss of Green-Ellis and Faulk, meant Ridley would more than likely assume a larger role in the offense.
The first opportunity for the second year running back to get a grasp on the position came in the season opening game against the Tennessee Titans and Ridley did not disappoint. Ridley picked up career highs with 21 carries and 125 yards while adding a touchdown in a 34-13 victory.
In the win, Ridley displayed his power style of running by driving through the Titans defense and breaking countless tackles for extra yards after contact. The effectiveness of Ridley also allowed Brady to keep the defense on its toes with a wide variety of play calling and that balanced attack the team had been seeking.
The jury is still out whether Ridley can maintain the production for 16 games. With a complimentary back like Woodhead still in the fold to pair with Ridley, it should not be an issue to keep Ridley fresh throughout the campaign. The key will be the adjustments Ridley can make against top-tier defenses, as those defenses have the experience to come in and take advantage of a younger player’s developing skill set and mental game.
As long as the Patriots can ease Ridley along while letting him develop and learn from his mistakes, there is no reason to believe the potential everyone has seen can translate into wins and another title run.