Given the way the post-Corey Dillon era went for the Patriots at the running back position, you'll come off sounding hard to believe if you claim to have predicted the stellar year their backfield produced.
As solid and dependable as BenJarvus Green-Ellis was as the (mostly) lead back during his time in Foxboro, not once dod he ever display the kind of power/speed/quickness combo that both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen showed in their time this past year. Even Brandon Bolden, who may not be the same player he appeared to be prior to getting popped for PEDs, showed more explosiveness than the Law Firm.
This isn't to slam on Benny. He was very good and a nice asset to a predominantly pass-oriented offense for this team. But the emergence of Ridley as a clear cut, lead back allowed the Pats some flexibility and alternative options on offense that hadn't been seen around these parts since Dillon's incredible 2004 campaign, a year which, probably not coincidentally, was the last time the Pats won the big one. The Pats sported the ninth ranked rushing attack in the league with Ridley leading the way.
Ridley got the majority of the reps in training camp and it showed as early as Week 1 when he busted out for 125 yards and a score on just 21 carries in a win over the Titans. He would go on to top the 100-yard mark four more times during the year and finished the season with 1,263 yards at about 4.4 yards a clip, the best season for a Pats' back since that incredible 1,600-plus season authored by Dillon.
Ridley runs like a slightly miniaturized version of Dillon (a comparison made in this space over and over all year long), slightly upright, with a higher center of gravity than most backs. His power was deceptive given his short-ish stature but like Dillon, Ridley would often look for contact, lower his shoulder and BOOM.
His quickness and field vision both impressed as well. Ridley proved very capable of finding the smallest of creases and blasting off once he hit them, particularly when the Pats would run the ball off of quick counts as part of their hurry-up, no-huddle attack. There's very little dancing/tiptoeing in his game. He was sort of the anti-Laurence Maroney like that. One game stands out in that regard, the London game against the Rams in which he blew up for 127 yards on just 15 attempts. He posted what was arguably his best run of the year in that game, a combination of all of his best qualities, quickly hitting a crease, hurdling a would-be tackler trying to get him low and putting his head down and running over a safety all on the same carry which went for 30 yards.
It's tough to accurately assess Ridley though, without bringing up his fumbling issues. When he dropped the ball near the end of the big win over Denver in October, almost overshadowing his career-high output in that game (28-151), some alarms went off given his getting buried on the bench late in 2011 following a couple of whoopsies. The problem resurfaced later in the season, coming to a head in the December Sunday-nighter against the 49ers when he put the ball on the ground twice and was benched for the second half.
He shored things up after that game, coming up big in the final two weeks of the regular season and in the Divisional round against Houston. And even though he coughed one up in the AFC Championship, he should be forgiven seeing as how he was knocked unconscious in midair by Pats' killer Bernard Pollard's helmet on the play.
It stands to reason that as Ridley grows and continues to gain experience, he will learn how to better protect the football more consistently and his fumbling issues will become a thing of the past. The Pats certainly hope that's the case as he is their best, most dynamic running back in years.
Should Ridley backtrack or get hurt, it's not like the Pats don't have the depth to overcome it. Vereen, when given the chance, proved to be nearly as dynamic as Ridley while also appearing more versatile. Vereen made several plays during the season catching passes out of the backfield and when Danny Woodhead went down early in the playoff win over the Texans, Vereen stepped in and had his best game of the season, not only running the ball at nearly six yards a pop but catching five passes for 83 yards and a pair of scores. Of course, the reception fans probably remember best came when he split wide to the left, beat his man with ease down the sideline and hauled in a Tom Brady pass over his shoulder for a picture perfect, 33-yard TD. After sitting out most of 2011 with injuries and struggling to catch up for the majority of this past season, Vereen showed at times why he was selected ahead of Ridley in the 2011 draft. Having a guy like him on the depth chart is a huge bonus.
Woodhead continued to be what he's been since arriving in 2010 which is to say a terrific extension of the Kevin Faulk era, a guy who is the ultimate third down back. It would be nice to see the Pats avoid running him between the tackles as much as they still do but when Woodhead is open in space or used on draws and delays out of the gun, he's tough to handle. His performance during the Pats' comeback in the second half of that 49ers game was one of the highlights of the season.
The Pats backfield corps had a tremendous overall year as a group in 2012. Given the group's collective youth and skill sets, it's tough to see these guys doing anything but continue to grow and improve going forward.
Given the variety of needs facing the Pats this off-season, particularly on defense, it would be at least a mild surprise to see them do much tinkering with the backfield depth chart this spring and summer. It's possible that should Jeff Demps make the team, he could see some reps out of the backfield in addition to being the primary kick and punt returner. But look for the rotation at this position to mostly resemble that of 2012, with a little bit more Vereen sprinkled in. As they are at quarterback, tight end and defensive end, the Pats are set at running back.