FOXBOROUGH — Being a running back behind a quarterback such as Tom Brady is a little like being a backup singer for a major act like Taylor Swift. You might be a talented performer in your own right, but the audience is only fixated on the performance of the pop star they’ve paid to see.
Sharing a backfield with a megawatt pro football performer such as Brady, it isn’t easy to stand out. Perhaps that’s how Stevan Ridley quietly had one of the best seasons of any running back in Patriots history in 2012.
As a second-year runner, Ridley rushed for more yards than more celebrated backs Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, and Frank Gore, spearheading the Patriots’ seventh-ranked rushing attack. His 1,263 yards were the fourth-most in franchise history and the most since Corey Dillon rushed for a franchise-record 1,635 in 2004, the last season the Patriots lifted the Lombardi Trophy.
With Brady and the passing game throwing up the “Pardon Our Appearance” sign as it remodels without Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez and with two rookie wide receivers, Ridley should have a bigger voice in the Patriots’ attack this season.
“It’s a high-powered offense. When you’re playing with one of the best at quarterback you’re going to be overlooked,” Ridley said. “For us, we just keep playing, we keep ballin’ every week. Whether they respect us or not we’re going to be there, and we’re going to be solid at it. Our group is going to be strong. As a team we’re going to be OK out of the backfield.”
The idea of coach Bill Belichick declaring his team a ground-and-pound outfit, a la a certain bloviating New York Jets coach, is far-fetched as long as Brady’s gilded right arm is attached to his body. But Ridley, who averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season, is what the team hasn’t had in nearly a decade — a bona fide feature back to take some of the burden off Brady’s shoulders.
A 2011 third-round pick, Ridley sounded more comfortable and confident as he spoke about the upcoming season following the Patriots’ first official practice of training camp on Friday. He declared the running game, which will also feature fellow third-year back Shane Vereen, ready for a bigger role if that’s what is required or requested.
“Shane is going to be my partner. That’s the right-hand man,” said Ridley. “We’re making these strides together. Like I said, the first two years things were kind of moving fast, but now we’re in our comfort zone. We’ve heard it all. We have to just go out there and be the players that we are. We can’t try to do too much, and if the team is going to come to us a little bit more, then so be it. We’ve got to be those playmakers.”
The NFL has increasingly become a passing affair, as quarterbacks fill the skies with passes and get showered with dollars.
The Patriots’ passing attack is as potent as any in the league, but throwing their way to a title has proven difficult even with Brady ripping up defenses and record books.
The ability to run the ball in the biggest games against the best defenses is the next step in the evolution of the Patriots’ offense. Along with finishing the never-ending rebuilding of the defense, a more balanced offense is crucial to restoring the Patriots’ championship reign.
One common thread in the Patriots’ last five playoffs losses is a failure to produce a single rush of 20 yards or more. The longest run is 17 yards by ex-Pat BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Super Bowl XLVI.
In the 28-13 AFC Championship game loss to the Ravens last January, the longest rush was a 9-yarder by Ridley.
If Ridley, 24, needed any motivation for this year, all he has to do is recall his last carry of that game, his last carry of the season.
Near the end of an 8-yard gain, Ridley lowered his head to take on noted Patriot antagonist Bernard Pollard. The resulting concussive blow caused Ridley to lose consciousness and his grip on the football. The Ravens turned the turnover into a touchdown and a 28-13 lead.
Dropping the ball remains one of the few caveats to counting on Ridley, who fumbled four other times during the regular season.
Fumbling problems also caused the Patriots to mothball him during the 2011 playoffs his rookie year.
Asking a running back about fumbles is like asking a skydiver about a parachute that doesn’t open. It’s best not to be thought of.
But Ridley can count better ball security among his goals for 2013, which include proving that the 1,200-yard season he referred to as a steppingstone wasn’t a fluke.
“You can either improve from here or you can fall back,” said Ridley. “I’m never satisfied. I’m hungry. I want to go out there and do it again and then better myself because that’s what my coaches are expecting, that’s what my teammates are expecting.”
There is no running from the fact the Patriots offense is going to have a different look with Hernandez, cut in June after he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, no longer part of the plan.
The Patriots created quandaries for defenses with a two-tight end attack with Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who started camp on the physically unable to perform list following a back operation in June.
By necessity and to buy Brady time to get on the same page with a wide receiving corps that includes just two players who have caught a pass from him in a game that counts (Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater), the Patriots could shift the attack to another pair of players drafted in the same year at the same position — Ridley and Vereen.
Brady is always going to be the Patriots’ headliner act, but he can’t be a solo artist if the Patriots want this season to end on a high note.