The Patriots offense has operated at a loss during an uneven training camp. It suffered a major loss before even taking the field for its first game of any kind this season. On the same day the Patriots opened the preseason against the Giants, trusted running back James White closed the book on his clutch career.
White’s retirement Thursday represents yet another link lost in the cultural chain connecting the current Patriots to the glory days. The four-time captain won three Super Bowls during his eight-year career and epitomized dependability, the most hallowed of Patriots traits. After Tom Brady’s departure, he was the conscience of the offense.
The trusted running back waving goodbye with those velvety soft mitts is another reminder of the cruelty and evanescence of the NFL. Every time these players take the field they’re one play away from their last, from an unexpected and unwanted career change. No matter how much of a locker room leader you are, how many Super Bowl rings you own, or how good a person you are, the game moves on without you.
The 30-year-old White deserved to go out on his terms, but that’s not how this unforgiving game works.
For White, the coda came via a hip subluxation suffered during the second quarter of the third game of the 2021 season. The 6-yard gain was his last play. It was a bad sign this offseason when Patriots reporters noted White, who started camp on the physically-unable-to-perform list, was still walking with a noticeable giddy-up in his gait.
A running back by trade and name, White made his mark as a premium pass-catcher. The passing-catching back role is one the Patriots have collected money plays from since the outset of New England’s dynasty, and nobody was more money in it than White. The torch passed from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen and to White.
Now, in a preseason full of offensive uncertainty, the Patriots will have to find a successor to White, who owns the team season records for receptions (87) and receiving yards (751) by a running back and since 2015 was tops among all NFL backs with 376 catches and 25 touchdowns receptions. His 381 catches and 3,278 receiving yards trail only Faulk among runners in team history.
All you have to do is weigh the words of the two primary principles of the Patriots reign – coach Bill Belichick and Brady – to understand the value he held and how respected he was in Fort Foxborough. Their praise practically spins a red jacket and his passage to the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Who knows how much those two agree on these days? But they agree that White was the apotheosis of a Patriot.
”He was a tremendous player for us, tremendous person,” said Belichick, postgame. “There’s not enough complimentary things to say about James or we’d be here all night and still have time left over. Ultimate team player, huge in big games, as professional as they come, and on and on and on.”
Nicknamed “Sweet Feet” for his evasiveness, White’s magnum opus will forever be Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons. He played an invaluable role in the Patriots’ miraculous comeback from 28-3, the largest in Super Bowl history. He scored the winning points in overtime, taking a toss from Brady and willing his way into the end zone – and pro football history.
In that epic and indelible triumph, White set the Super Bowl record for receptions with 14, totaled 110 receiving yards, and scored three TDs (two on the ground, one through the air), plus rushed for a 2-point conversion. His 20 points remain a single-game Super Bowl mark.
When Brady accepted the Super Bowl MVP, he said that White should’ve walked away with the hardware in Houston.
“I was telling coach earlier that James White is like my oldest son,” Brady said then. “He just does everything right. You can never get mad at him because even when he doesn’t make the play he feels worse about it than you do. He’s just the best teammate.”
If you want to know how White’s teammates feel about him all you have to do is look to the tragic death of his father, Tyrone, in a car accident in September of 2020. His mother, Lisa, was also seriously injured in the crash, which he learned of while in Seattle for a game.
When longtime teammate Devin McCourty returned an intercepted pass for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks, he mouthed, “Two-eight, we love you, bro,” into the camera.
Tons of White’s current and former teammates took to Instagram, where he announced his retirement, to fete him. He was the North Star of the New England locker room, a classy voice of calm in the storm.
Certainly, he would be a welcome voice now given the hysteria over the offensive changes being implemented, which have left the offense looking like the Lighthouse end of Gillette Stadium.
The under-reconstruction area is a perfect metaphor for the Patriots offense under the guidance of Belichick Buddies Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, who split play-calling duties Thursday. It looks unrecognizable. It’s a work in progress. It’s obviously an unfinished product and a bit of an eyesore. It’s clearly missing some pivotal pieces to resemble the blueprints.
White is another weapon the Patriots won’t have for Mac Jones, notable because White had a knack for finding paydirt. He was the second-fastest running back in NFL history to 25 TD receptions, trailing only Brian Westbrook.
It would’ve been wonderful to see White don a Patriots uniform one more time, but fate and his hip had other ideas.
“I know he worked extremely hard to come back off a really big injury,” said Belichick in his pre-game interview with 98.5 The Sports Hub. “It’s always tough at the end of the career, but I love James.”
White was a calming constant amid a sea of change. Now, the tide of time has swept him away from the Patriots too and too soon.