FOXBORO -- Stevan Ridley's ball security issue brings to light one of coaching's greatest quandaries: What do you do with a talented player who can't stop making mistakes?
"That's the balance that you're trying to strike and that's true every day of the football season -- including OTA's, including training camp -- that everybody has to understand there's a below-the-line level, and when it's below the line, we can't live with it. It hurts the team," Bill Belichick explained Wednesday.
"Now, we all make mistakes, and nobody makes more of them than I do, so I understand that mistakes are part of the game. I've been in that long enough to know there's no perfect player, there's no perfect game or practice, that if you go out there and compete against enough high-level competition that they're going to make some plays too, and that's part of it. But there's a below-the-line [level] and we just can't live with that and expect to win. And that's the bottom line."
Ridley is a dynamic runner who in 2012, his sophomore season, had 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries. But he also fumbled four times and was benched because of it. In 12 games this year he has 645 yards and 7 touchdowns on 151 rushing attempts, as well as 10 catches for 62 yards. Again, he has four fumbles. All of them were lost.
The consequences have been severe this season.
When Ridley put the ball on the ground Week 9 against Pittsburgh, Belichick stuck with him. He finished with 26 carries for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns, and plenty of gratitude for his coach's confidence. But when he followed that game up with another lost fumble in Carolina, and another against Denver, the coaching staff put its collective foot down.
Ridley was a healthy scratch for New England's Week 13 game against Houston.
"Things are going to happen that are below the line that we have to correct, but we have to stay above the line. And that line is drawn at every position with various criteria that applies to those players at those positions," said Belichick.
"It's not scientific, there's no textbook on it, on how to handle those situations -- those are situations you have to handle on a daily basis and, ultimately, on a weekly basis -- and ultimately on your decision to keep or not keep certain players. Things like that come into play. It's how each decision gets made. That's a critical part of coaching in any sport -- particularly in football, but in any sport."
Despite a strong effort from LeGarrette Blount in recent weeks, Ridley is still New England's best power back. He still has a job.
The 24-year old returned to the field Week 14. He played just 17 of 82 offensive snaps and carried the ball 8 times for 35 yards. Even more telling, New England was down to Cleveland late in that game and got in its hurry-up offense for the final two drives. Which running back got the ball? Shane Vereen.
Ridley played in a reserve role (13 of 81 snaps) the following week as well. So while his talent still wins him a roster spot, he is being managed, he is on a leash. Trust is everything to an NFL team and players must earn the benefit of the doubt.
Tom Brady has earned the benefit of the doubt. Stevan Ridley has not.
"There's different levels, and players earn different levels of status on a team. Everybody on the team has the same status to a certain degree, but we all know it's not quite the same for everybody.That being said, I think there's a certain way to deal with different players on the team. But as far as below-the-line, or above-the-line, I don't think there's too much doubt about that.
"If you're playing defensive back, you can't have the ball thrown over your head for an 80-yard touchdown. It's not acceptable," an impassioned Belichick stated. "I don't care if the guy is a Hall of Fame player or he's a rookie free agent in his first practice: You can't play like that. You can't throw a pass into a team meeting where there's four defenders there, and try to jam the ball in there, and get it picked off. It's unacceptable. You can't win doing that."
It is a simple equation, really. Brady hasn't performed perfectly in every single game. The thing is, he has always rebounded and returned to excellence. When he no longer competes as an elite quarterback the Patriots will have to deal with it.
And they will.
"I don't care who the quarterback is, it doesn't make any difference. We can't jump offsides and false-start, and be in first-and-15s, and let them convert third-downs on third-and-fours because we jump offsides. We can't play like that. It doesn't matter who the player is, it's still below the line. We can't play like that and expect to win."
Belichick's points may have been cold, but were not callous.
The NFL is a business; winning is good for business and losing is bad. Variables that don't help a team win must be eliminated. If coaches don't make the choices necessary for the team to operate at its optimum level, they could be one of those variables that gets eliminated.
So Belichick expects his quarterback won't throw interceptions. He expects his defensive backs won't blow coverage. He expects his running backs won't fumble.
That is how you keep your job.
"By performing. You go out there and perform. You don't drop below the line," Belichick stated. "Take [former Browns tight end] Ozzie Newsome, there's a good example right there. When Ozzie was a rookie -- and he played 13 years -- he fumbled, lost the ball, [and his] team lost the game. Never fumbled again the rest of his career. Never fumbled again the rest of his career. 600 and 700 passes, however many passes it was, however many times he touched the ball in his career, never fumbled again."
Newsome did fumble once in his third season, in 1980, according to Cleveland.com. But the Browns recovered and so did the tight end; Newsome didn't fumble in the last 557 times he handled the ball.
"Why is Ozzie Newsome in the Hall of Fame? That's why. That kind of commitment, that kind of performance. It was important enough to him. Fumbled once, didn't fumble again the rest of his entire career. Now think about that."
You can be sure Ridley will.