Echoing comments Tom Brady made in the bowels of Ford Field back in September, Josh McDaniels on Tuesday stressed the need for the New England Patriots to get the ball in James White’s able hands more often.
Brady’s backing of the Super Bowl LI hero came after White was targeted just three times in the passing game in a humiliating Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions. McDaniels’ followed a similarly quiet performance from White, who finished with 37 yards from scrimmage on seven touches in Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I mean, he’s obviously a very good player for us,” the Patriots offensive coordinator said on a conference call with reporters. “He’s been tremendous in his role. He’s very valuable. The more he touches it, the more we can get it to him, we usually feel very good about those opportunities. … He needs to be involved. He’s certainly been a tremendous player for us, and the more he can touch the ball, the better off we all feel.”
Feeding White has coincided with success on the scoreboard this season. In games in which he’s received 13 or more carries and targets, the Patriots are a perfect 9-0. When he gets the ball 12 times or fewer, they’re 0-5, including their four lowest scoring outputs of the season.
Three of those five losses have come in the last five games.
James White carries + targets by week:
Week 1: 14
Week 2: 12 (31-20 loss to JAX)
Week 3: 7 (26-10 loss to DET)
Week 4: 18
Week 5: 16
Week 6: 13
Week 7: 21
Week 8: 21
Week 9: 19
Week 10: 9 (34-10 loss to TEN)
Week 12: 14
Week 13: 15
Week 14: 8 (34-33 loss to MIA)
Week 15: 9 (17-10 loss to PIT)
There are multiple factors at play here. One is that teams are dedicating more resources to limiting White after his torrid start to the season. (For a while, he was on pace to break the NFL record for receptions by a running back.) White also hasn’t looked like the same player since suffering a knee injury in Week 9, with his production dropping across the board in the five games since:
White’s playing time has dipped since the team welcomed Rex Burkhead back from injured reserve in Week 13. He’s still played the most snaps of any Patriots running back in the three games since Burkhead’s activation (92 to Sony Michel’s 85 and Burkhead’s 50) but has logged three of his four lightest workloads of the season in terms of snap count percentage (44.6, 40.7 and 41.9 percent).
During that span, White has caught 14 passes on 20 targets for 132 yards, with 42 of those yards coming on a largely uncontested catch-and-run against a Minnesota Vikings prevent defense. He hasn’t scored a touchdown — rushing or receiving — since Week 9 after scoring at least one in seven of the Patriots’ first nine games.
Against the Steelers, White hardly was used before the Patriots’ final possession, with three of his five catches coming in the last two minutes of regulation. Brady’s decision not to throw to White more on that drive — which ended with three straight incompletions into the end zone — has been questioned this week, though head coach Bill Belichick defended the quarterback’s judgment Tuesday.
“Any time you have multiple guys that play a similar position that are capable of doing good things in the game, you obviously have choices to make,” McDaniels said. “And sometimes those choices mean more or less of something, and other times there are factors that are not necessarily in our control that affect overall production and ability to get one person the football.
“Certainly, James is a player that has been very successful and productive in his role, and other teams are aware of that. He gets plenty of attention from other people. Sometimes that means the ball needs to go somewhere else, and sometimes we can still find a way to get him the football and let him have the opportunity to make plays.”
After Brady called for more White in New England’s game plans, McDaniels obliged, and the Patriots reeled off six consecutive wins. We’ll see if this latest urge has a similar effect.