FOXBORO - "Nobody wants to see the ball on the ground less than me," said Stevan Ridley on Sunday afternoon.
The second-year back was referring, of course, to the tail end of 2011 when - at the end of a promising rookie season - he dropped the football twice. One went out of bounds. One was recovered by the defense. They came in the final regular-season game at Buffalo and in the AFC Divisional Playoff game against Denver.
And the region gasped like he'd mooned the Queen.
It was a surprise that the historically surehanded Ridley put the ball on the ground. It will be a bigger surprise if it becomes a habit.
The kid is diligent as his early returns in camp have shown. Ridley's easily outclassed his draft peer from 2011, Shane Vereen through four public workouts. His blitz pickup form leaves something to be desired, but his decisiveness making cuts, ability to run in traffic then bounce out and accelerate and run with power have all been impressive.
"I'm not even close (to where I need to be)," said Ridley, who came to the Patriots from LSU. "I still have work to do."
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone, Joseph Addai released and Vereen starting slowly, the image of Ridley as the lead back is becoming easier to imagine.
Ridley admitted it's occurred to him as well.
"I think that's every little kid's dream," he said when asked if he hoped to be the starting back this year. "It's a joint and a team effort. We have a group of running backs that can all play that all do great things differently, who all do them well. I'm just in there trying to pull my load."
Ridley's running skills have put him in a good position so far. His ability as a receiver is more of an untapped resource. But with the Patriots working a lot of screen passes into their practice time this week, we're seeing Ridley's strength in that regard.
He's a naturally smooth catcher who gets his head around quick and gets downfield without a lot of dancing. And that's important with screens.
To see three big linemen in front of you trying to get downfield on some DBs, it's a chance to make a big play so for me, it's a present almost when you have lead blockers going downfield like that," Ridley explained. "I look forward to it when it does open up. If we get it down and get it like the coaches want us to run it, I think we'll run that play a good bit."
The screen is a counter punch to an overaggressive pass rush, something plenty of defenses are forced to employ since Tom Brady with time to survey means death. To slow down the pass rush, being able to flip a pass over the top of onrushing linemen and in front of dropping DBs, is a sensible play.
Receiving was not a strong suit of Green-Ellis. And Danny Woodhead is a difficult target to locate with his size. Ridley needs to be able to carry it off.