The distress on Stevan Ridley’s face in the wee hours of Monday morning wasn’t on display for effect.
After his third fumble in as many games, the third-year running back was plainly shattered by the hole he helped dig and the embarrassment of watching his teammates dig out of it over the next three hours.
“You ever talk to Kevin Faulk about this,” I asked when Ridley took a brief break from verbally flogging himself. “He was horrendous in 2000 with fumbles.”
“I’ll call Faulk,” said Ridley.
Given that both men were third-round picks out of LSU (Faulk in 1999; Ridley in 2011) and that they had some overlap, it’s a little surprising the contact didn’t come sooner. Faulk, as he matured, was known to mentor younger players during the tail-end of his terrific career with the Patriots.
Interestingly, Ridley might as well be operating with vise grips compared to Faulk’s performance in Bill Belichick’s first season as head coach.
Faulk may go down as the best change-up back in NFL history, but he fumbled himself to the edge of employment in 2000.
An accounting . . .
* In Week 1 against the Bucs, the Patriots trailed 14-10 and faced third-and-12 at their own 19. Faulk caught a 9-yard pass from Drew Bledsoe, got stripped by Derrick Brooks and Tampa went on to turn that turnover into a touchdown. Final score, Tampa 21, Patriots 16.
* Week 4 against Miami, the winless Patriots down 7-3 and at the Miami 6 with a second-and-goal just before halftime. Faulk fumbles. Patriots lose.
* Week 7 at New York, first drive of the game. The Patriots have third-and-2 at their own 35 when Faulk reels in a pass from Bledsoe and gets stripped by Bryan Cox. The Jets turn that into a TD. Patriots lose.
* Week 10, first drive of the game, first-and-10 at the 50. Faulk fumbles but makes the recovery.
* Week 14, the Patriots are up 30-17 on Kansas City with 4:34 left in the game and the ball on their own 43. Faulk fumbles, the Chiefs recover, and Elvis Grbac gets KC into the end zone two plays later. When the game ends, Kansas City is at the New England 12, throwing for the end zone with a chance to win but ends up losing, 30-24.
* Week 16, first-and-10 in the first quarter at Buffalo in hellacious conditions, Faulk falls on his own fumble.
As bad as Ridley’s drops have been, that season by Faulk was just an unmitigated disaster. Why didn’t Belichick cut the cord or more drastically cut his playing time? Well, the quarterback was a turnover machine himself that season (13 picks, 9 fumbles) so it’s not like Faulk was the only one giving it away at a good clip. And the other running back in the fold was rookie J.R. Redmond who wasn’t quite ready for a prime role.
More than anything else, though, Bill Belichick often referred over the years to Faulk’s diligence and the sincerity of his effort.
Faulk didn’t quite fix things (he fumbled 16 times over next nine seasons), but he certainly trimmed his fumbles and there was never any doubt about the seriousness with which he approached the job even in his second season.
Though both men were drafted in the same round out of the same school, Ridley doesn’t exude the same tough, no-nonsense demeanor Faulk did. Ridley is a character. He’s proudly shown up for work in a baby blue velour onesie with white moon boots adorned with rainbows. He carries a leather backpack with glittering pieces of gold on it. He’s not a flake, but he’s fun.
And it has struck me when I’ve seen the fumbles and resulting punishment if there are times Belichick or running backs coach Ivan Fears looks at Ridley’s get-up and thinks, “The guy we’re all depending on is wearing a onesie and moon boots. He carries the fortunes of the franchise under his arm when we hand off to him. Does he understand how much we’re relying on him? Nice onesie, though.”
I don’t want to go too far with the hypothesis because Ridley comes in a distant second to Tom Brady in the interesting apparel category.
But Brady’s shown that nobody’s going raises an eyebrow about your get-up when you’re the best in the league and your seriousness is beyond reproach. As for Faulk, there was never doubt the game had his full attention. He was a fairly quiet, no BS guy early in his career. One supposes Belichick didn’t feel as if Faulk wasn’t preparing fully and treating his role as the main ballcarrier with gravity.
If the worst thing Stevan Ridley ever does off the field is wear a baby blue onesie, any one of 32 teams would sign up for that kind of player. He’s a terrific kid. But Ridley’s going to have to earn back the trust of the Patriots coaches. And it may take some doing. From my vantage point, he’s too talented to put in mothballs for the rest of the season but the sincerity of his effort matters.
Reaching out to Faulk was smart. Because Faulk had it worse than Ridley does. And he didn’t just survive, he thrived.