HOUSTON — James White is underappreciated no more.
Tom Brady may have been named MVP of Super Bowl LI, but White is the one who was shuttled off to Disney World on Monday, and will be receiving Brady’s free truck that he won as the MVP, after playing the game of his life in Sunday night’s dramatic 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons.
“I think James White deserves it,” Brady said Monday morning.
The Patriots have a knack for introducing the world to unknown players in the Super Bowl. Two years ago, it was Malcolm Butler. Sunday night, it was White, one of the smallest Patriots at 5 feet 10 inches and 205 pounds, coming up huge in the victory.
He scored the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, the winning touchdown in overtime, added an essential 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter, and set a Super Bowl record with 14 catches.
And they were clutch catches, as they came on 16 targets. White had more than 100 total yards in a game (110 receiving, 29 rushing) for just the second time in his career, and it came on the nation’s biggest stage.
White didn’t have a 100-yard receiving game or a rushing touchdown all season. He just saved his best for last.
“It’s really surreal,” White said. “I was just living in the moment. I wasn’t paying attention to how many catches I had, how many yards I had. I just wanted to keep moving the chains no matter what it took.”
Sunday’s performance was a long time coming for White, who has spent most of his adult life as an underappreciated football player.
Coming out of high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he was a three-star prospect and only got one scholarship offer in his home state, from the University of South Florida. He enrolled 1,500 miles away at the University of Wisconsin, and rushed for 45 touchdowns in four seasons, including 25 in his last two years. But every NFL team passed over him in the 2014 draft until the fourth round, when the Patriots took a flier on him to back up Shane Vereen.
And White’s Patriots career began slowly. He was inactive for 16 of 19 games as a rookie, including the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX win over Seattle.
“James White wasn’t even active for the Seattle game. Had such a tremendous game and role in this one,” Bill Belichick said. “Again, I just think that speaks to the improvement and competitiveness and the job that our coaching staff has done developing younger players and continuing to try to improve the team at every opportunity we get.”
White was given a chance to win the pass-catching running back job in 2015, but was overshadowed by Dion Lewis. When Lewis went down with a torn ACL, White took over, but didn’t exactly shine. In the Patriots’ AFC Championship game loss at Denver, White caught just five of 16 passes thrown his way, with a few untimely drops.
White, apparently, took the performance to heart.
“I was telling Coach earlier, James White is like my oldest son,” Brady said. “You can never get mad at him because even when doesn’t make the play, he feels worse about it than you do.”
But everything started to click for White this year, his third NFL season. He played a crucial role in the passing game, finishing second on the Patriots with 60 receptions and five touchdown catches (to go with 551 receiving yards).
And with the Patriots in deep trouble against the Falcons, White got the call over Lewis and LeGarrette Blount. White played 71 of 99 offensive snaps, compared with just 17 for Blount and 12 for Lewis. Used mostly as a receiver on the perimeter, White had the Patriots’ longest play of the day, a 28-yard catch in the second quarter to help set up a field goal before halftime.
He converted two third downs on the day, and seven first downs overall. Of the Patriots’ 39 plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, White was the recipient 13 times (on passes and runs) for a total of 57 yards.
“We just kept going to him,” Brady said, “so I think that speaks for itself.”
White didn’t just have a knack for big plays and a nose for the end zone on Sunday night. He stayed in to protect Brady on a couple of plays, and made a crucial block early on the Patriots’ tying, 91-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.
Facing third and 10 from their 9-yard line, Brady hit Chris Hogan for 16 yards thanks to White picking up the blitzing cornerback and holding him off just long enough for Brady to complete the pass.
If Brady doesn’t have time to make that throw, that magical drive never happens.
“He’s a guy that I would say epitomizes the do-whatever-is-asked-of-you role,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of White. “We didn’t practice some of those plays with James White in the game, but that’s the way the game went. So James stayed in there and he knew what to do. James always knows what to do. And then he made the plays in the critical situations to help us win.”
White’s performance Sunday night epitomized the Patriots and everything they have accomplished in the last 16 years. Once a kid that was overlooked in his home state and then couldn’t crack the Patriots’ lineup, he became one of the biggest heroes in the Super Bowl.
“I’m so proud of him and everything he’s accomplished,” Brady said Monday. “I’ve seen him grow from a rookie to working his tail off, to becoming a big factor in all these games. He’s just the best teammate. He’s an incredible player.”