FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — So who do you like at running back for the New England Patriots?
Stevan Ridley? Or Shane Vereen? How about rookie James White?
Think about it and take your time because it doesn’t look like Coach Bill Belichick is going to settle on one any time soon. That was fairly evident by the split playing time they received in Friday night’s 30-7 preseason victory over the Carolina Panthers at Gillette Stadium.
Vereen got most of the playing time and caught two touchdown passes from Tom Brady. Ridley led the Patriots in rushing – albeit with just 28 yards – and set up Vereen’s second score with some tough running.
And that’s all right. Because in today’s NFL, unless you have an Adrian Peterson or maybe a LeSean McCoy, you don’t rely on one back to keep the offense moving.
New England’s offense moves, of course, on Brady’s ability to instantly decipher what the defense will do, then dissect said defense with his usually pinpoint passing. Friday night, against a pretty good defense, he completed 17 of 21 passes for 204 yards.
The Patriots haven’t relied on a single back since Corey Dillon’s first year here. In 2004 he carried 345 times, or 66 percent of the team’s rushes, in helping the Patriots win their last Super Bowl championship.
The following year his carries dropped to 209, or only 48 percent of the time, and the next year it was 199 carries, just 16 more than rookie Laurence Maroney.
Since then only twice has a New England back carried more than 200 times: in 2010 (BenJarvus Green-Ellis with 229) and 2012 (Ridley with 290).
That’s how this offense has evolved. Where once Brady was simply considered a game manager, he’s now considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
That being said, this team needs running backs to contribute. And what the Patriots like about this group is they all bring different things to the offense.
Ridley, the presumed starting back, is the banger, the inside runner who also has some sneaky speed. When you’re close to the end zone, he’s the guy who’s going to ram it in.
He showed his skills on two particular plays in the third quarter. The first was a 13-yard burst up the middle to the Panthers’ 9, the second a tough 3-yard run on the next play. That set up Vereen’s second touchdown reception.
His only problem has been holding the ball. Last year he fumbled four times and lost all four. For that he was benched, once for the duration of a game, a second time for an entire game.
Vereen is the change-of-pace back. Once only on the field on passing situations on third downs, he now comes in on any play. His athleticism creates huge matchup problems for any defense, evidenced by his first touchdown when he took a swing pass on the right from Brady and before linebacker A.J. Klein could get within sniffing distance, sprinted 40 yards for the score.
Friday he rushed the ball six times, caught it five. Said Brady afterward, “When the ball’s in his hands, good things happen. We need to try to get him the ball more.”
His problem has been staying healthy. He missed nine games in his rookie season because of injuries, three games in 2012 and eight games with a broken wrist last year.
White could be a combination of the two. He’s a strong runner with good hands.
But after getting rave reviews early in training camp, he’s leveled off. Still, with Ridley and Vereen in the final year of their rookie contracts, he appears a lock to stick and learn from both.
Lost among this shuffle is Brandon Bolden, who didn’t play Friday night. He has shown flashes of brilliance the last two years but is now on the bubble to even make the team. Not playing Friday won’t help.
So who do you like at running back for the Patriots?
In the end, as long as they contribute, it’s not going to matter.