FOXBOROUGH — In September, when the Patriots went on their first two-game losing streak of the season, Tom Brady responded to a question about James White’s conspicuous absence from the game plan in a loss to the Lions by saying the third-down back should see the ball more often.
“He’s got to be involved,” Brady said following the game in Detroit. “Guys who can make plays are the ones that should be involved.”
This week, it was offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels saying the same thing in a similar circumstance.
“He needs to be involved, he certainly has been a tremendous player for us and the more he can touch the ball, the better off we all feel,” McDaniels said Tuesday, when asked why White’s touches have dried up in the past few weeks.
Not long ago, White was on pace to break the season record for receptions by a running back. He still leads the Patriots with 81 catches, a franchise record at his position. His 699 receiving yards are third on the team, and also a franchise record for a running back.
Yet, three of White’s four worst games by offensive snap percentage have come in the past three weeks.
“I just try and play my role each and every week,” White said Wednesday. “You can play 10 snaps, you can play 60 snaps.”
It’s no coincidence that White’s snap counts took a hit when Rex Burkhead returned in Week 13. White hasn’t been on the injury report, but it’s also worth noting he left the Packers game briefly with a knee issue. He said after the game he just had to shake it out. He’s been able to take all contact in practice since and pretty much every NFL player has a bump here, a bruise there at this point. Still, worth noting since White has been less productive since.
Opposing defenses also took note of White’s production earlier in the season and adjusted, according to McDaniels.
“James is a player that has been very successful and productive in his role and other teams are aware of that. He gets plenty of attention from other people and sometimes that means the ball needs to go somewhere else,” McDaniels said, though he also acknowledged he can find ways to get White the ball in spite of that.
It’s in the Patriots’ interest to keep White involved because, when they do, they win.
In the Patriots’ nine wins, White’s carries and targets add up to an average of 16.7 per game. In losses, he gets the ball nine times per game. In fact, the Patriots are 9-0 when White gets the ball at least 13 times. They are 0-5 when he gets it less than that.
That’s not just because the Patriots throw downfield more when they’re losing and play ball-control offense when they’re winning. Just looking at the first halves of games, when situations are less critical and the Patriots are trying to establish what they want to do against an opponent, the trend holds. White gets 8.2 carries or targets in the first half of wins; less than half that (3.8) in losses.
White had two carries and seven targets Sunday in Pittsburgh. He was relatively anonymous until New England’s final drive, when he had one carry and was targeted on three consecutive plays, helping the Patriots move from the Steelers’ 31 to 11-yard line.
On second and 15 and third and 15, however, Brady threw to the end zone instead of going to White, who was open underneath on both plays. Asked if White was an option on third and 15 or if Brady needed to go to the end zone considering the time left on the clock (0:26), coach Bill Belichick didn’t give a concrete answer, but he said he wouldn’t question Brady’s decision.
“I don’t think anybody will make it better than [Brady]. You can second-guess it all you want, but that’s the person we have doing that and we have great confidence in him doing that,” Belichick said. “It’s a tough situation. I don’t know if there’s a great answer when you don’t have much time and you have to throw to the end zone or you maybe marginally have enough time to throw it somewhere else if you can’t get out of bounds.”
On the second-and-15 play, White got open, but Brady was looking the other way. He might have been able to stand in the pocket long enough to look back to White on the left side, but he felt pressure and went in Rob Gronkowksi’s direction in the end zone. Of the two, that’s probably the more quibble-worthy play.
The Patriots have two more regular-season games to work on their issues and try to get right for the playoffs. Time will tell how big a part White plays in the final push, but it’s reasonable to think he’ll be more involved because, when he is, the Patriots win games.