This season has taken on a similar tone. Josh McDaniels returned to run the offense. Tom Brady is back to looking like an MVP front-runner, and Wes Welker is hauling in passes at what’s become a customary obscenely high level.
The Patriots are on a very close pace — currently averaging 35.8 points per game — to their 2007 NFL-record 36.8 points per game pace, and many of the weapons remain intact. But there remains one major fundamental difference.
Since their last Super Bowl title in 2004, the Patriots have had just one running back eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau. BenJarvus Green-Ellis achieved the honor in 2010, barely breaking the plain with a final tally of 1,008 yards. On Sunday, Stevan Ridley joined Corey Dillon and Green-Ellis as the only Patriots players to accomplish the feat in the past 10 seasons.
Ridley may not have a cool nickname like the Law Firm — although the Riddler seems like an obvious choice — and he may not best Dillon’s 1,635-yard season from 2004. But the second-year running back has altered the offensive culture in New England — something neither Dillon nor Green-Ellis were ever capable of.
Ridley, who is still just 23 years old, has rushed for 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns through 12 games this season. He’s well on his way to a top-five finish in rushing yards — he currently ranks sixth — and he’s scored a touchdown in five straight games to help steady the Patriots’ recent offensive explosion.
While the stats are a nice touch for the young tailback, his impact on this offense has been a far greater story than numbers could ever tell. His productivity has alleviated a lot of the pressure on Tom Brady and finally reestablished some sort of balance to the Patriots’ offense.
Thanks to Ridley’s consistent contributions on the ground, the Patriots are airing it out a lot less. Brady’s thrown the ball just 53 percent of the time in 2012, compared with a Brady-era high 58 percent last season. The difference is much more dramatic than it seems.
Ridley’s already carried the ball 225 times this season, which is four fewer times than Green-Ellis’ high of 229 in 2010. And by season’s end he’ll have the most attempts by any Patriots back since Dillon’s 345 back in 2004. That sort of commitment to the run game is more than just a philosophical shift on offense, too. It’s a clear show of confidence in the team’s new feature back.
Before this season began, the battle for the feature back role in the Patriots’ offense wasn’t more than a coin flip between Ridley and Shane Vereen. Four months later, though, it’s pretty clear that Ridley is that guy.
Vereen, Danny Woodhead and rookie Brandon Bolden have all been productive at times this season, but Ridley has been throughout. As long as Brady is taking snaps under center, this team will always be a pass-first offense. Two MVP trophies have made that abundantly clear. But Ridley’s commitment and contribution out of the backfield has at least made Bill Belichick and McDaniels think twice.
The Patriots will need a running game if they expect to be successful come playoff time. And with Ridley only growing stronger as games, and the season, roll on, the Patriots may have finally found the missing piece to their Super Bowl puzzle.