FOXBOROUGH — Where is running back James White?
White, who scored a team-high 12 touchdowns last season, has found the end zone only twice this year — on a 10-yard pass from Tom Brady in garbage time against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 and on a 1-yard rush against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9.
Once Brady’s most popular target, the versatile 5-foot-10-inch, pass-catching back hasn’t been utilized at the same frequency as he was in 2018. White was on the field for at least 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in eight games last season. This year? That’s happened only twice through 11 games. Of those eight games last season, White was on the field for at least 60 percent of the team’s offensive snaps five times. This year? That has yet to happen.
So, what gives? Is coach Bill Belichick intentionally managing White’s workload?
Belichick, unsurprisingly, wouldn’t tip his hand.
“I don’t know,” Belichick said. “I think you look at the whole position as a group, we have a lot of good players at that position, a lot of guys that contribute.”
Belichick noted a player’s usage cannot always be mapped out in advance.
“I think it’s harder if you tell a player you’re going to pre-determine, ‘This is what it is,’ and then you get in the game, and then something comes up — the score, the situation, an injury, whatever happens — and his role changes and he’s not ready,” Belichick said. “Then it’s like, ‘Well, you told me to be ready for this and something else came up.’ So, you get them ready for everything and take it game by game.”
White said he’s not frustrated by any adjustments to his regular-season role. Even with Rex Burkhead missing some time because of a foot injury and Sony Michel struggling, White is averaging just 12.9 rushing yards per game, down from last season’s 26.6.
“The NFL each week is ebb and flow,” White said. “You’re going to have ups, you’re going to have downs. Each week, you’ve just got to come out there and improve and find ways to get better.”
The majority of White’s production this season has come as a receiver, with 49 catches for 414 yards. Twelve of his receptions have come in the red zone, but only one for a touchdown. White said he hasn’t noticed too much of a difference in how defenders are guarding him, but he’s trying to stay both physical and creative with his routes. His catch rate is up by 4.1 percent this season, though he’s been targeted less often.
“Each year is different, each game is different,” he said, “but you’ve still got to go out there and do your job. If the ball comes your way, you’ve just got to make a play, and one-on-one situations, you’ve got to win. It doesn’t matter what the matchup is, I just try to go out there and help my team win.”
Echoing running backs coach Ivan Fears, White noted the individual statistics don’t matter to him as long as the team is winning games.
“Each week, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win a football game, whether it’s running the ball 40 times, whether it’s throwing it 60 times,” White said. “Whoever’s number is called on that week, guys just got to go out there and answer the call.”
Method to his misses
Brady is throwing the ball away this season at a career-high rate. Why? Not for self-preservation.
“I wouldn’t be in the self-preservation business if I was trying to be a football player,” Brady said. “You’re going to get hit and you’ve just got to understand that’s part of the game.”
Instead, his decision has to do with effectively managing the drive.
“I’m throwing it away because I don’t want to take a sack,” Brady explained. “Turnovers and negative plays I think really keep you from winning games . . . If I’m going to hold it back there, then usually good things aren’t going to happen. So, I try to throw the ball away to save plays and live for the next down.“
Cornerback Jason McCourty (groin) and defensive lineman Byron Cowart (head) were downgraded to out Saturday afternoon. McCourty and Cowart were among the 17 players initially listed as questionable for Sunday night’s game against the Texans. McCourty also missed New England’s Week 12 matchup against Dallas.