In 2012, Stevan Ridley had one of the best seasons of any running back in Patriots history.
The 23-year-old LSU product finished with 1,263 rushing yards, the fourth-best single season mark in franchise history. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 290 carries (coming with 10 carries of becoming the first New England running back to carry the ball 300 times since Corey Dillon in 2004.) In all, Ridley and the rest of the Patriots’ running backs helped bring a real balance to the New England offense for the first time since Dillon’s remarkable season.
With all of the offseason changes to the New England offense -- the loss of wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, as well as the uncertain health situation around tight end Rob Gronkowski -- the level of familiarity that Ridley presents as a feature back should bode well for a possible encore performance in 2013. In addition, his age also is a good sign, as the only back in Patriots history who had a better season before the age of 24 was Curtis Martin, who ended up with 1,487 yards in 1995 at the age of 22. (At the age of 24, Jim Nance had 1,458 rushing yards with the Boston Patriots.)
So against that backdrop, what is a realistic level of expectation for Ridley in 2013? If he stays healthy, could he replicate his 2012 performance, and become the first running back since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots in 2000 to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons?
Ridley is an interesting case. When you’re looking for historical precedent in matters involving a relatively young running back and their production level in a high-octane passing offense, he doesn’t lend himself to too many historical comparisons for two reasons: One, in his 18-year career as a head coach (both in New England and Cleveland), Belichick has never had a running back go for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
(Of the three different backs who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in New England before Ridley hit for 1,263 last year, Antowain Smith came the closest to back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons when he had 1,157 yards in 2001 and 982 yards in 2002. Corey Dillon followed up his franchise-record 1,635 rushing yards in 2004 with 733 yards the following season, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 1,008 rushing yards in 2010 and 667 yards in 2011.)
And two, despite the fact that Ridley is only the 28th running back in the history of the game to gain at least 1,250 rushing yards in a single season before his 24th birthday, he is not the offensive centerpiece of his team. Most of the guys who hit that plateau at the age of 23 or before went on to become some of the best in the history of the game -- workhorses who had to carry their offenses in their heyday. While that day may come for Ridley after Tom Brady retires, for now, he’s not the biggest offensive name on the Patriots.
For what it’s worth, that group of elite historical backs who hit 1,250 rushing yards before the age of 24 has some truly great names on it, all of whom were clearly head and shoulders above the pack by that age. It’s a group that includes Walter Payton, who topped at least 1,390 twice before the age of 24; Adrian Peterson, who topped at least 1,340 twice by the age of 24; Jim Brown, who topped at least 1,320 yards twice by the age of 24; and Barry Sanders, who rushed for more than 1,300 yards three years before the age of 24.
(Three of the more notable names on the list who had big performances early in their careers as part of a larger offensive collective were Emmitt Smith, who topped at least 1,560 rushing yards twice before the age of 24; Edgerrin James, who surpassed 1,550 twice before the age of 23; and Clinton Portis, who also rushed for at least 1,500 yards twice prior to turning 23.)
To find a true historical comparison to Ridley, the running back would have to have had success in his early twenties as part of a stable, traditional offense with other, consistent offensive options -- that is to say, not solely responsible for the bulk of the offense. In addition, let’s match him up with Ridley’s skill set (a traditional, between-the-tackles runner with a dynamic style) and overall physical makeup (5-foot-11, 225-pounds).
With that in mind, we found four possible comparisons who could give us some idea of how Ridley’s career might eventually pan out:
Frank Gore: At 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, he’s shorter and a little more physical than Ridley, but he’s had the sort of career Ridley would likely kill for. A third-round pick like Ridley (although Gore’s stock dropped because of college knee injuries), he’s been part of a competitive Niners team that has had several other offensive options over the course of his eight-year career, but he’s still rushed for more than 1,000 yards six times. It remains to be seen how he does when he hits 30 this season (usually the point when running backs start to drop off), but to this point in his career, he’s compiled 8,839 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry and 51 rushing touchdowns. This is the ideal scenario for Ridley.
Curt Warner: A Penn State product who played for the Seahawks from 1983 to 1989, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder topped 1,000 yards four times while working in a Seattle offense that included quarterback Dave Krieg and wide receivers Steve Largent and Brian Blades. He had a brief stopover at the end of his career with the Rams before calling it a career before 30, and ending with 6,844 rushing yards, a 4.0 yards per carry average and 56 rushing touchdowns. Another positive template for Ridley to follow.
Antowain Smith: Smith got a late start -- he didn’t reach the NFL until the age of 25 -- but the 6-foot-2, 232-pounder out of Houston had four seasons of at least 840 yards, including two years where he topped 1,000. (In 1998 and 2001.) By the time he left Foxboro at the age of 31, his relatively small window for success was just about closed. But in nine seasons (four with the Bills, three with the Patriots, one with the Saints and one with the Titans) he went to the postseason four times, was a part of two Super Bowl teams and had 6,881 rushing yards, a 3.9 yards per carry average and 54 rushing touchdowns. Not ideal -- and certainly not traditional, because of the late start. But in the end, a successful career nonetheless.
Ottis Anderson: The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Anderson is an interesting case study in that he had two distinct acts as a pro. The first came when he flashed tremendously at the start, rushing for over 1,000 yards in five of his first six seasons with the Cardinals, most of the time as the only consistent offensive presence for a woeful St. Louis team. Then, after a poor four-year stretch, he was reinvigorated at the tail end of his career when he rushed for more than 1,800 yards over a two-year stretch for the Giants in 1989 and 1990 while helping New York win Super Bowl XXV. Not the most traditional career, but when you play into your mid-30s and finish with 10,273 rushing yards, average 4.0 yards a carry and win a Super Bowl ring, well, that’s not bad.
In the end, while he’ll have to battle Shane Vereen (and Brandon Bolden) for reps in 2013, Ridley figures to have an excellent shot (providing he stays healthy) at becoming the first-ever back under Belichick to go for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons: The continuity he brings at the position, his youth and the fact that the Patriots could end up leaning on the running game even more this year with some level of uncertainty in the pass-catching corps means that he’ll certainly get his chances. And while no one is saying he’ll follow the same career arc as some of the other great backs who hit the 1,250-yard mark before the age of 24, if he can get to 1,000 yards in 2013, that will likely be more than enough for the Patriots.