“We gave the goddamn game away.”
That’s how New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears described what happened Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
With the Patriots driving for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown or field goal, Damien Harris fumbled just 9 yards shy of Miami’s goal line. Cornerback Xavien Howard pounced on the ball, and the Dolphins were able to run out the clock for a season-opening 17-16 victory.
Harris was one of New England’s offensive standouts in the game — he finished with 100 yards on 23 carries and added two catches for 17 yards — but his fumble was a killer.
“The one thing that we preach about more than anything in the world is good ball security,” Fears said Tuesday in a video conference. “It was like the classic thing that you wouldn’t expect to happen in that we would actually give the ball away, give the goddamn game away by turning the ball over in the last few minutes of the game when we’re in scoring position. That was a hard one. That’s a hard one to accept.
“And for Damien? That stings, man. That stings like a son of a gun. The whole team’s sitting there, all their faith is in you, and he has to ride that. He’s had to deal with that. He’s the kind of guy that I think can come out of this all right. But that’s a hard one. That’s a hard one.”
Harris was fighting for extra yardage on first-and-10 from the 11-yard line when Howard ripped the ball out of his grasp. With the Patriots already well into field-goal range and trailing by just one point, Fears said the third-year back needs to be more congnizant of the game situation.
“He was trying to make a play, trying to make a play, but somewhere along the lines, you’ve got to remember the situation that we’re in,” the longtime Patriots assistant said. “We’ve got a chance to take the lead. … The journey was over. We didn’t need much more. He wasn’t fighting for a first down. The journey was over. Protect the ball with both arms, get what you can get and let’s go down. The journey’s over.
“We’d gotten what we needed there. Just going to eat some clock and play the game. I’ll take the hit on that one. We were moving the ball, he was on the field, and I didn’t get a chance to give him any extra help on that one.”
Harris was on the sideline for the previous two plays after carrying on three consecutive snaps and appearing winded. His fumble came on his 25th and final touch of the game, a new career high for the 2019 third-round draft pick.
After the game, Harris was adamant that he would not let his costly error “define” his season.
“I feel confident that Damien is going to step up to the plate on this,” Fears said. “I really do. We have not had a problem with him. I think we’ll be all right. I really do.”
Harris wasn’t the only Patriots back who put the ball on the ground against Miami. Rookie Rhamondre Stevenson also lost a fumble — and drew Fears’ displeasure by not fighting hard enough to recover it.
“You’ve got to understand how important that ball is,” Fears said. “I hope he learns from Damien on the situation, how devastating it is when you give up the ball. That’s got to become (priority) No. 1. He’s got to learn that no matter when the ball comes out, even though you may think you were down, the evidence doesn’t always back you. So you’ve got to hand the ball to the official, is what you’ve got to do.
“That should be your goal: You get tackled, you’re the one handing the ball to the official after every time you touch it. That’s the way we’ve got to approach it. He’s got to approach it that way. He’s got to learn that lesson. He’s a hell of a back, but he’s got to learn that lesson. He can’t play the other way.”
Jones and tight end Jonnu Smith also fumbled Sunday, though theirs were recovered by Patriots teammates. Fears knows New England’s next opponent, the New York Jets, will look to exploit this potential weakness in Week 2.
“They’re going to come after us trying to get this ball off,” Fears said, “and we’ve got to protect the damn ball.”