It never left his hands all game.
As Stevan Ridley paced the sideline at Reliant Stadium Sunday afternoon — not in a Patriots uniform but in a navy-blue long-sleeve T-shirt and tights topped by team-issued shorts (a stark departure from his far more colorful choices in fashion) — he had a football with him at all times.
Was it coach’s orders? That part is unclear.
But after three lost fumbles in three games, giving him four for the season, Ridley found himself a mere spectator as New England played Houston, albeit one with a great vantage point.
It seemed obvious that Ridley was being punished for his mistakes in the most public of ways, though coach Bill Belichick would not say so, either after the game or Monday morning during a conference call.
“Is there any reason why?” he said Sunday night. “Because there was 46 other players active today.”
On Monday, Belichick was asked directly if the third-year running back was benched because of his fumbling issue.
“The inactive players every week are based on in part injuries, and ultimately what we feel like for that particular game is the best decision for the football team in that game to try to win,” he said.
“Along with every other decision on the team that I make, it’s made with what gives our team, in our opinion, the best opportunity to win on Sundays. That’s what all decisions are based on.”
It is true that all four of Ridley’s fumbles — in the season opener against Buffalo, in Week 9 against Pittsburgh, in the red zone in Week 11 against Carolina, and in Week 12 against Denver — were recovered by the opponent and led to points. But the Patriots are also 3-1 in those games.
There is no good time to fumble the ball. But it is also true that Ridley is New England’s best ballcarrier.
Shane Vereen is an excellent third-down back, an impact player making catches out of the backfield, and he also can split wide on occasion.
Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount, however, are not Ridley. Neither is as dynamic, explosive, or consistent as Ridley, who had 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns (and four fumbles) last season.
The calendar has turned to December, and there are just four weeks left in the regular season. Not only are the Patriots once again in line to win the AFC East, they also have a good chance of claiming one of the conference’s two first-round byes, in theory making their road to a Super Bowl berth a bit easier.
Belichick has said that a good ground game is important as the weather turns cold, and the passing game coming around with the return to health of Vereen and Rob Gronkowski would only help New England when January comes.
Belichick was not trying to send a message to Ridley, he said Monday, which seems to be a dubious claim.
“If I have a message to send somebody, I’ll just sit down and talk to them and tell them what it is,” Belichick said. “I can have a conversation and do have a conversation with anybody on the team that I need to have a conversation with. That’s not a problem.
“There’s no ‘sending a message.’ You sit down and talk to somebody man-to-man and talk about the situation so that we’re all on the same page as to whatever it happens to be and what the direction is going forward. That’s easy. There’s no sending a message. You just have a conversation with somebody. This isn’t cryptic. We’re just trying to win a football game, that’s all.”
No one doubts that he is, and Belichick certainly has won his share since coming to New England.
But what about other players? Julian Edelman, for example, has fumbled five times this season — including twice on one punt return against the Broncos — but has not seen any decline in his playing time.
The only difference is Edelman has been fortunate that all of his fumbles were recovered by himself or a teammate.
Again, Belichick went back to his stock answer.
“Well that’s easy,” he said. “We always do what we feel is best for the team in every situation. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will always be as long as I’m here.
“I have to do what I feel like is best with any decision, in any situation, with what I feel is the overall best decision for the football team. That’s what drives every decision I make, on everything: plays, players, you name it. I have to do what I feel like is best for the team.”
It’s hard to think that continuing to sit one of his best offensive players is in the team’s best interest.