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In a move that did not come as a surprise to anyone, running back Stevan Ridley was listed as inactive before Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans for non-injury reasons. We all know Coach Bill Belichick’s tolerance for fumbling has reached a boiling point and he was clearly sending Ridley a message with the benching (despite his claims otherwise) for his inability to protect the football.
This is not the first time Ridley has been punished for his fumbles. He has been benched for a few series, halves and was even inactive his rookie season against the Baltimore Ravens after fumbling the ball the previous week against the Denver Broncos. As none of those strategies seemed to eliminate the fumbles, Belichick decided to take a more drastic approach and made Ridley a spectator for Sunday’s game (to give Ridley some credit, he was firmly holding onto a football on the sidelines the entire game).
There is no question the third-year back deserved to be benched this past Sunday as his most recent fumble is nothing of an anomaly for him. Ridley has had his fair share of fumble-itis this season, with a team-leading three lost fumbles in his last three games and four overall. However, he is still a valuable part of this team, bringing balance to the Patriot offense. Now his future as the starting back with the team is in question, especially with his latest benching.
If Ridley were the lead back on any other team not coached by Belichick, his constant fumbling might not be an issue. Unfortunately for Ridley, he plays on the very structured, disciplined Patriots where fumbling will not be tolerated. Has Ridley’s latest fumble against the Broncos cost him his starting job and perhaps jeopardized his future with the team, or does he deserve another chance to prove himself as as a reliable back?
I am probably one of the only people left in New England that does not believe Ridley deserves to lose his starting role with the team or be benched for the rest of the season, despite his constant fumbling. He is just too talented and athletic to be a bench warmer.
It is very hard for me to make a case for Ridley because of all his fumbles, but putting things in perspective, he is one of the greatest backs for the Patriots in the last decade. Yes, it is hard to put the fumbling aside as they are so crucial to the momentum and outcome of the games, but Belichick obviously sees something special in him if he has not lost his starting job permanently…yet.
Ridley’s production when he is able to protect the ball arguably outweighs his sometimes untimely fumbles. It is because of the success of Ridley that the Patriots finally have a balanced offense and a successful running game reminiscent of the days when Corey Dillon was carrying the load. With Ridley, the Patriots are able to execute more of a balanced offense and the running game is a legitimate part of the game plan and not just an afterthought (like it was with Laurence Maroney, remember that guy?).
Admittedly, I cringe a little every time Ridley carries the ball, but he is just too important to the success of the offense to take a reduced role. Just last season, in his second year, Ridley rushed for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, dramatically improving the running game of the Patriots, allowing for a more balanced offense to complement the passing game.
This season, Ridley has been their go-to lead running back when he has been able to secure the football. Among all the running backs on the team, Ridley leads the pack thus far this season in terms of total rushing yards (576), attempts (135) and yards per game (57.6). He is also an important part of converting first downs, again leading the backs with 29 conversions. When Ridley is in games, he is a difference maker, as he also leads the backs with seven rushing touchdowns.
Without Ridley, it is a collective effort from the other three backs — Shane Vereen, LaGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden. Just this past Sunday in a narrow win against the Texans, the three backs combined for 88 yards on 27 carries, a mere 3.2 yards per carry.
Although all three backs, especially Vereen, are capable of carrying the load, none are as complete of a back as Ridley. That is why if the Patriots are serious about going deep in the playoffs they need to have more of a balance offense. With so many season-ending injuries on defense, the offense needs to be spectacular, now more than ever. With that, they need to run the ball more to take the pressure off Tom Brady, who is still working on his chemistry with his young, inconsistent but improving receivers.
Moving forward, Ridley really needs to figure out a way to hang on to the football because his future with the team is in his hands, literally.