When you start putting together a short list of the best and most durable running backs in the league, Stevan Ridley’s name isn’t necessarily at the top. But over the first 11 games of the 2012 season, he’s done more to bring balance to the Patriots offense than any single individual, sparking a running renaissance in New England not seen since Corey Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards in 2004. And as a result, he’s on pace to become one of just a handful of elite backs over the last five years who has hit the 300-carry plateau and 4.0 yards-per-carry mark in the same season.
With the departure of BenJarvus Green-Ellis via free agency, when it came to this past offseason, there were more questions than answers in regards to the Patriots running game. Did New England have enough to replace the usually reliable Green-Ellis? Could a relatively young stable of backs produce consistent yards on the ground? And could Ridley get past a pair of ill-timed fumbles late in the year and emerge as the Patriots’ lead back?
While New England’s ground game still had some punch with Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead and Brandon Bolden, the idea of a 1,000-yard runner this season seemed unlikely for a couple of reasons. First, while New England preaches due diligence when it comes to available free agents, the Patriots were quick to sign veteran Joseph Addai. (In addition, they kicked the tires on a number of veterans, including Ryan Grant and Tim Hightower.) Second, with the emergence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at tight end and the addition of Brandon Lloyd and the continued high level of play from Wes Welker, there were only going to be so many touches for the New England backs.
In August, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked if he could see his team handing the ball to a running back 320 times in a single season, or if those days were done. He responded, “I’m for whatever helps us win. If it’s 500 quarterback sneaks, if that’s the best thing for us, then I’m all for it. If we win, if that’s the best thing we can do to win, then sign me up for it.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the player,” Belichick added. “If he’s productive, I think you’d want to give him a chance.”
This season, Belichick has given Ridley his chance, and he’s responded. Addai quit during camp, and Gronkowski and Hernandez have been banged up over the first 11 games. Those factors, as well as an ability to take advantage of some positive situations, have led to big numbers for New England’s backs. In fact, they’ve made Green-Ellis’ performance the two previous years seem positively pedestrian: Through 11 games in 2011, the Patriots had 1,214 rushing yards on 298 carries, an average of 110.4 rushing yards per game. Through that same stretch in 2012, New England has 1,581 yards on 369 carries, an average of 143.7 rushing yards per game.
While the other three backs have had their share of big moments, it’s been Ridley who has been the best and most consistent of the group. An understudy to Green-Ellis last season, Ridley has emerged as a steady threat in the ground game. Through 11 games, he second-year running back out of Louisiana State has 939 rushing yards on 206 carries, an average of 4.6 yards per carry. He’s in the top seven in most major categories, including total yards, yards per carry and yards per game.
As a running back, the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Ridley doesn’t have any particularly distinguishing characteristics that necessarily separate him from his peers. He’s not uber-physical like Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch. He’s not an undersized scooter like Alfred Morris, Doug Martin or Ray Rice. And he’s not a great burner like LeSean McCoy. Instead, he’s simply got a good burst, nice awareness, vision and lean.
“They biggest thing about Stevan is that he’s very passionate about the game,” Pats running backs coach Ivan Fears said. “Stevan loves to play and I think that’s his first and biggest asset. There’s no doubt -- on a game day, he is there. He is mentally in the right frame of mind to play the game. I think as long as he’s got that kind of passion for the game, he’s going to do the little things that he needs to do to be physically ready to play the game.
“He’s maturing. He was a young guy when he came in, and he’s figuring it out. He’s figuring out how to be a professional athlete. He’s figuring out what it takes to be a professional athlete. That’s what you like to have.”
Going deeper inside the numbers, Ridley is averaging 18.7 carries for 85.4 yards per game -- extrapolated over a 16-game season, that’s 1,366 rushing yards on 300 carries, an average of 4.6 yards per carry. If that holds, Ridley would be the first New England running back since Corey Dillon in 2004 to have at least 1,300 yards and 300 carries.
By way of comparison, here’s a look at the lead backs for New England since Brady became the starter:
2001: Antowain Smith, 287 carries, 1,157 yards, 12 TDs
2002: Antowain Smith, 252 carries, 982 yards, 6 TDs
2003: Antowain Smith, 182 carries, 642 yards, 3 TDs
2004: Corey Dillon, 345 carries, 1,635 yards, 12 TDs
2005: Corey Dillon, 209 carries, 733 yards, 12 TDs
2006: Corey Dillon, 199 carries, 812 yards, 13 TDs
2007: Laurence Maroney, 185 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs
2008: Sammy Morris, 156 carries, 727 yards, 7 TDs
2009: Laurence Maroney, 194 carries, 757 yards, 9 TDs
2010: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 229 carries, 1,008 yards, 13 TDs
2011: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, 181 carries, 667 yards, 11 TDs
2012: Stevan Ridley (projected), 300 carries, 1,366 yards, 12 TDs
But it’s not just one of the best years in franchise history that Ridley is aiming for. In this era of spread offenses, the 300-carry back is a bit of an anomaly (there were 13 in 2003, compared to just two last year), but it’s a sign of durability and dependability when it comes to the running game. Rarer still is the 300-carry back who can also display the consistency needed to hit four yards per carry. But if continues to hit his numbers, Ridley could join some exclusive company. Here’s a look at the backs who have done it over the last five years:
• 2011: Maurice Jones-Drew (343 carries, 1,606 yards, 4.7 yards per carry), Michael Turner (301 carries, 1,340 yards, 4.5 ypc).
• 2010: Turner (334 carries, 1,371 yards, 4.1 ypc), Arian Foster (327 carries, 1,616 yards, 4.9 ypc), Chris Johnson (316 carries, 1,364 yards, 4.3 ypc), Ray Rice (307 carries, 1,220 yards, 4 ypc).
• 2009: Johnson (358 carries, 2,006 yards, 5.6 ypc), Thomas Jones (331 carries, 1,402 yards, 4.2 ypc), Steven Jackson (324 carries, 1,416 yards, 4.4), Adrian Peterson (314 carries, 1,383 yards, 4.4 ypc), Jones-Drew (312 carries, 1,391 yards, 4.5 ypc).
• 2008: Turner (376 carries, 1,699 yards, 4.5 ypc), Peterson (363 carries, 1,760 yards, 4.8 ypc), Clinton Portis (342 carries, 1,487 yards, 4.3 ypc).
• 2007: Willie Parker (321 carries, 1,316 yards, 4.1 ypc), LaDainian Tomlinson (315 carries, 1,474 yards, 4.7 ypc).
That’s 11 different backs. (For the record, as many as six running backs could hit the mark this season, including Ridley, Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Doug Martin and Peterson.) By anyone’s measure, that’s the sort of company reserved for the best backs in the game, particularly if you’re grading on a curve because of the fact that Ridley plays in a pass-first offense led by Brady.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Ridley can finish off the season on the same pace, let alone create the same sort of statistical consistency year after year like Jones-Drew, Turner, Foster or Rice to truly join the league’s elite. But in the course of 11 games this year, he’s done more than enough to remind the rest of the league that the Patriots are more than Brady and a handful of pass-catchers.