FOXBOROUGH — Stevan Ridley knows the consequence. He has known since his earliest days as a running back in his hometown of Natchez, Miss.: If you put the ball on the ground, you’re likely going to be pulled from the game.
And no player wants to lose reps, for any reason.
Though Ridley is putting together the best season for a Patriots running back since Corey Dillon in 2004, these days the topic that comes up most when he’s being talked about is fumbling.
The second-year back officially has four fumbles on the season, two of them lost. But a fifth, early in the San Francisco game, was overturned when it was determined that he was down before the ball came out. A week earlier, his goal-line fumble was recovered by teammate Aaron Hernandez.
Those plays would come back to haunt Ridley in the film room, where they were shown several times.
It was tough love for a player the Patriots believe in — the best running back on the team and the most dynamic one they’ve had in some time. But Ridley didn’t have to watch the replays of his miscues to know they must be avoided.
“As a running back, that’s just a known rule that you can’t have the ball on the ground,” said Ridley. “For me personally, it’s letting yourself down really. Because your job as a running back, they hand you the ball and they have confidence in you to hand it to you multiple times in the game; that’s your position.
“Other positions they throw it to you, but behind the quarterback, you handle the ball as much as anybody on the team, so you have to be confident in ball security, you have to have the coaches’ confidence that you’re going to bring the ball back, so any time you let the ball down, you really let the whole team down.
“I don’t like letting my teammates down. We work too hard, we’re too good of an offense to make careless mistakes, so it’s almost like a personal thing for me to fumble the ball, let it go, so I try to eliminate that, not have it happen.”
Later in the San Francisco game, he did lose a fumble, when fast-moving 49ers safety Donte Whitner put the crown of his helmet right on the end of the football. But Ridley was carrying the ball high and tight, just as his New England coaches have taught him, and there was little he could have done to avoid losing it in that situation.
When a back carries the ball 270 times through the first 15 games, as Ridley has, it is almost inevitable that he will lose his grip once in a while. Patriots fans were spoiled by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who never put the ball on the ground during his four years (and 510 carries) with the the team.
Ridley was starting to see his opportunities increase toward the end of last season when he put the ball on the ground in back-to-back games. He fumbled out of bounds against Buffalo in the regular-season finale and then lost the ball in the third quarter of the divisional-round victory over Denver, when the Patriots held a 42-7 lead.
He was effectively benched, not getting a carry in the AFC Championship game or Super Bowl.
Ridley has had some conversations with Kevin Faulk about the situation. Faulk and Ridley both attended Louisiana State, and Faulk was a valued mentor to the young running backs last year, his final one as a player. He continues to be a sounding board now.
Faulk also knows a bit about getting over a fumbling issue: He had three as a rookie in 1999 when he had 128 touches as a running back and return man, and six a year later when he had 259 touches.
“You don’t want to overemphasize it to a guy,” said Faulk. “It’s like every person: If you keep talking about [a negative] and everyone else is, it starts to bother them. That’s not helping them out, that’s making it worse.”
Faulk speculated that the New England scouting and coaching staffs likely knew when Ridley was drafted last year that he might have a tendency toward fumbling because of his running style and the moves he’ll make when he’s trying to elude defenders. It was a risk-reward proposition: He would be productive — and he certainly has been this year, with 1,189 yards on 270 carries — but he might put the ball on the ground once in a while.
Ridley has 16 carries of 15 or more yards, and as a team the Patriots have 23. Last year they had only 18 carries of 15-plus, and the rookie Ridley, even though he totaled 87 carries on the season, had 10 of them.
This year, he has picked up first downs on 75 of his 270 chances, a number that ties him with Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster for the NFL lead. He has been stuffed (tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) 28 times, which is on par with the league’s other lead backs.
He’s enough of a threat that the Patriots have been able to use play-action far more effectively than in recent years.
The fumbles get attention, but they aren’t the only thing that should be talked about with Ridley. If you’ve seen the commercial he did for a local Cadillac dealership, you likely noticed that he’s wearing a jumpsuit that looks a lot like footie pajamas — without the feet.
The jumpsuits, made by California Christiania Republic, came to Ridley’s attention over the summer when he was in Las Vegas and saw friend Von Miller rocking a green one with bright orange sneakers and a matching hat.
Miller gave Ridley one, and these days it’s almost all he wears, around Gillette Stadium and out and about. He has “winter” jumpsuits made of fleece, including one with white fur along the zipper (a la Santa Claus) that he wore on Christmas.
“I wear them, they’re comfortable, they work for me, I don’t have to wear regular clothes,” he said. “I wake up in the morning, put my underwear on, jump in my onesie and I’m out the door. It saves time. I get more sleep if I wear a onesie because I don’t have to wear regular clothes.”
He has given them to teammates, and even left one for Bill Belichick last week.
“I’m going to see if I can get him to wear it — it’s got the sleeves cut off and everything so he’s ready to go,” Ridley said, laughing. “He has no excuse.”
As for his on-field performance, Ridley isn’t taking the clichéd route of sleeping with a football, but he knows that ball security has to be a focus — though not an obsession.
“If you overthink it, you’ll find yourself getting in more trouble than just going out there and doing what you know that you need to do, and that’s holding onto the football,” he said.
“So that’s really all I’m going to take from it — leave the past in the past, good or bad, that’s what I do, and try to move forward and finish this year with no more fumbles. That’s my main goal.”