If the Patriots running back Stevan Ridley ever wants to see the field again, he needs to look to two players: Kevin Faulk and Ozzie Newsome. One an inevitable franchise hall of famer. The other a league wide hall of famer. Let's start from the top.
Ridley has had extraordinarily terrible ball control this season. Out of running backs with more than 100 carries on the season, he's the absolute worst. When looking at those running backs, and including receptions for total touches, Ridley puts the ball on the ground every 36 touches, or what would be roughly once every other game for a workhorse back. In comparison, the league's best running backs have the following rates:
LeSean McCoy: 271 touches per fumble
Knowshon Moreno: 244 touches per fumble
Matt Forte: 135 touches per fumble
Adrian Peterson: 72 touches per fumble
Jamaal Charles: 68.5 touches per fumble
Marshawn Lynch: 62.75 touches per fumble
Reggie Bush: 56.25 touches per fumble
Ridley is fumbling almost twice as much as any other running back outside of scatbacks like Bush and C.J. Spiller (53.67 TPF). That's not the company a workhorse, between-the-tackles running back should be alongside. In fact, if the season ended today, his fumble rate would be tied for 11th worst out of running backs in the past decade, alongside luminaries like Chris Perry, Mike Goodson, Felix Jones, and Tim Hightower.
But there is hope. We all love and respect what Patriots running back Kevin Faulk has done for the franchise and it's known that he started off his career with a major fumbling issue. His 2000 season was one to forget.
He had a fumble forced and recovered by two franchise players on the Buccaneers (Derrick Brooks and John Lynch) that allowed the Bucs to start with the ball four yards out of the red zone. He followed that up two weeks later with a fumble on the Dolphins 6 yard line.
Three weeks later he fumbled on the opening drive against the Jets. And then he fumbled in the red zone later in the year against the Browns. And one more time, late in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, while holding on to a 13 point lead. And there were two more fumbles, noted by Tom Curran, that Faulk recovered himself.
Sounds pretty familiar to the impact of Ridley's fumbles this year.
Ridley and Faulk spoke about Ridley's issues this season and they're working on improving Ridley not just for this season, but for the future.
Jeff Howe reported that Faulk advised Ridley on being himself, but still look to improve his game in order to protect the ball.
Shalise Manza Young reported that Faulk told Ridley to look at football as his job and that the security of both his career and the football intertwine as one.
But perhaps we can look to what the Patriots did with Faulk in order to help with his fumblitis. Tom Curran, from back in 2001, reports with head coach Bill Belichick:
"Sure there were times when we were frustrated with some of the mistakes that happened," said Belichick. "But we spent a lot of time (during the offseason) in terms of taking care of the ball and the finer points. Every drill he did in the offseason was with a ball with a string tied to it so whether he was doing shuttle drills or sprints, we'd try to pull it out or jerk it away so that all of his training was done with ball security. Not that he hasn't fumbled but, but his awareness and concentration and work is paying off."
I wonder if the Patriots have been working on similar drills the past few weeks, or if they'll have Ridley play a more minor role and work on his ball control in the offseason and into his contract year. That will be up to Bill Belichick and, interestingly enough, Belichick loves to talk about fumbles.
Here's Belichick on Faulk's fumbles in 2000 (emphasis my own):
Q: Do some guys run with a particular style that makes them more inclined to put the ball on the ground?
B: Every year as a coach at the end of the year you go back and look at all of the fumbles your team has had and they are all a little bit different. You can look at every fumble in the league we have done that before too and they fall into certain categories, but each play is a little bit different. You can always go back and say, ‘On this play if this had happened a little bit differently or that had happened a little bit differently it could have been prevented, but then the next one carries a another set of circumstances with it.
The bottom line is ball security is ball security and there are going to be a very small number of fumbles each year that are probably unavoidable by the person handling the ball. For example a quarterback who is trying to deliver the ball on time and gets hit from the blind side and there is no way really that he can know that player is there and he can’t be looking at that player or he will never see the guys that he is supposed to be throwing to. So sometimes there is a contact fumble where the guy is running with the ball or catching the ball or gets hit in a way that he has very little opportunity to defend himself or really protect the ball, but for the most part ball security, when you have it that has got to be a high priority.
I learned a lot about ball security when I was in Cleveland from Ozzie Newsome. Ozzie had a fumble that cost his team the game his rookie year and then after that he caught 620 some passes and never fumbled after that, he never fumbled the rest of his career. So you can say that fumbles occur because of hits or great plays by the defense or this or that, but there are some players that just don’t fumble very much and I think part of it is technique, part of it is a mentality, part of it is putting ball security at the top of the list.
So from what I gathered from back in 2000, Belichick knew that Troy Polamalu was going to blindside Ridley and cause a fumble. That's a case of the fumble not being Ridley's fault, so much as it was the defense making an astounding and perfectly timed hit. The other fumbles? Those seem to fall into the "avoidable" category where Ridley needs to focus on protecting the ball more.
You can also determine that Belichick loves him some Ozzie Newsome and, if Ridley can figure out his fumbling issue, he should develop into a surefire hall of famer (or something like that).
But wait, there's more. The above quote block is from during the 2000 season, while Faulk was struggling to control the ball. Here's another excerpt from 2002, but I advise you read the whole transcript because there's a solid 10 straight questions regarding Faulk's development as a ball protector, a pass protector, and a football player, as well as the concept of Belichick putting players in the "dog house":
Q: Not to jinx the guy, but it seems like [Faulk's] fumbling has gotten better.
BB: I think Kevin has taken, after the first season, after the 2000 season, I think Kevin’s taken a real conscientious approach to that. Nobody wants to lose the ball, no back, no receiver, no quarterback, nobody ever wants to lose the ball. I don’t think a player ever goes out on the field and fumbles and doesn’t care, ‘okay, I just lost a fumble, no big deal.’ Of course it bothers them. Of course they want to eliminate that, so part of it’s technique, first of all let me say this, some fumbles are almost unavoidable.
There’s certain contact fumbles that, because of the nature of the collision or where the collision point is on the ball, sometimes that’s going to happen. The majority of those though can be prevented by protecting the ball to the best of the players ability, and that’ll prevent a lot of those balls from coming out. All you can really ask a player to do is to be conscious of it, and protect it and take care of the ball. Inevitably there’s going to be a play here and there that maybe you’re not able to prevent, but for the large majority of them you can. Kevin’s worked hard and conscientiously to address that.
Q: He seems to have played an awful lot better since [a game with a key fumble]. Is it possible that a negative moment like that serve as a watershed?
BB: I guess it’s possible. I think it is possible, the guy can miss a tackle, and, ’Hey go on a real conscious effort to be more fundamentally sound tackling.’ Or a quarterback can throw an interception and get to the point where, ‘Hey I’m not going to throw, I’m going to be more careful, I’m just not going to throw it to them.’
I’ll just share the story that sticks out more to me than any other one, is Ozzie Newsome. When Ozzie was a rookie in Cleveland he fumbled, it was a really costly play in the game and from that point on, I forget the exact number, he handled the ball 600 and something times and never fumbled after that. So I would almost say that that play was a watershed play for him. Once that happened to him, of all the other things he had to concentrate on, and you know, he’s a hall of fame tight end, of all the other things he had to concentrate on, blitz pickup, the running game, patterns, coverages, adjustments, this, that, and the other thing, obviously it struck a cord with him that once the ball is in his hands, it’s not coming out, and it never came out again.
So clearly, we have proof that Belichick is nothing more than a coaching cyborg with a lexicon of regurgitatable quotables.
What remains is a few clear points of detail:
1) Belichick absolutely hates fumbles that can be prevented. Players like Faulk and Newsome stick out in Belichick's mind because they made a conscious effort of reducing the avoidable in order to help their team.
2) Ridley and Faulk both know this, and Belichick knows this, and all three will likely work together in order to help Ridley because the offense is so much better when he's active and is a viable weapon in the running game.
3) If Ridley could just stop fumbling, he could possibly become the Ozzie Newsome of running backs, and we all deserve to bear witness to whatever the heck that could be.
The Patriots were able to work in the offseason with Faulk by tying the ball to a string and improving his focus and effort. If Belichick, running back coach Ivan Fears, Ridley, and maybe even Faulk get together the next few weeks, leading into the home stretch, and work on that same process, perhaps Ridley can be ready to help in time for the playoffs.
Sitting Ridley on the sideline and taking him in-and-out of games won't do much for his development and for the team's offensive potential. Those are reactionary and preventative moves that absolutely help the team from committing more mistakes, but they don't solve the issue itself. Ridley won't improve and he'll remain inconsistent until the root is cured.
Hopefully, the combination of Faulk and Belichick can be exactly what Ridley needs.