Not all fumbles are created equal.
That didn't stop Patriots running back Stevan Ridley from calling his fumbles "sickening" and saying, "I'm going to put a little more pressure on myself to go out there and practice and try to change up some things because I can’t keep doing this."
If he turns on the tape, he'll find some easily correctable areas that can help him keep better control of the ball.
That being said, not even Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the man charged with putting Ridley on the bench after his fumbles, would classify it as a "fumble problem," as some in the media have done.
"I don’t think any of our backs have an issue that I would say would prevent them from being a productive player," Belichick said on WEEI sports radio Boston, via Christopher Price. "Look, there are some plays that happen in football that are plays that happen in football. Then there are other plays that are caused by a lack of discipline, a lack of technique, just carelessness. Those are the ones we have to eliminate."
Some of Ridley's fumbles fall into the "plays that happen in football" category, while others are clearly those which have to be eliminated.
Let's take a look at each of Ridley's fumbles and see what can be corrected.
2011: vs. Bills, Week 17
Ridley took the handoff to the right side and tried to slip through the arm tackles of defensive backs George Wilson and Aaron Williams on either side of him.
He made it through their grasp but not before losing control of the ball. Williams reached in with his right arm, while Wilson made contact from behind, causing the ball to pop forward out of his hands and roll out of bounds.
Ridley has been known for his ability to fight through contact, but as we see here, that ability can be both a gift and a curse. You can't tell a running back who excels at fighting through contact to stop fighting through contact. That's about as counterproductive as it gets.
2011: vs. Broncos, AFC Divisional Round
Ridley split out to the left as a receiver and ran a five-yard curl route, but Brady threw the ball well behind him, forcing him to come back for the ball. He turned around and tried to make something happen, but with three defenders converging on him, his prospects were not good.
As we can see in the .gif above, Ridley was able to get two hands on the ball before the defenders arrived and fell forward. There were, however, two other hands on the ball: one hand each of Broncos defenders D.J. Williams and Brodrick Bunkley. One punched down, one ripped up and the hit jarred Ridley from behind, resulting in the fumble.
There's really not much else Ridley could have done to prevent the fumble.
2012: at Bills, Week 4
This was the most harmless of Ridley's fumbles because it occurred near the sideline, and the ball went out of bounds.
It may also be one of the more blameless because Ridley had the ball secured with proper high-and-tight technique before the defender arrived, only to lose grip on the ball as the first defender yanked at his arm.
As the defender came in the second frame, Ridley tried to get his other arm on the ball to make sure he wouldn't lose it. It was only in the third frame, when a linebacker came in and knocked Ridley to the ground, that the ball squirted out.
2012: vs. Broncos, Week 5
Ridley had the right idea for a moment and tried to cover up the ball by wrapping two hands around it as he fell to the ground. He braced himself to hit the turf by putting his arm out, which took it off the ball, allowing Broncos linebacker Von Miller to get a hand on it.
If Ridley had covered it up completely as soon as he got into the crowd of defenders, he could have prevented the fumble.
2012: vs. Texans, Week 14
You try hanging onto a football with one guy strangling you, another guy holding your legs and another guy punching at the ball.
That's exactly what happened on this fumble against the Houston Texans, with Ridley trying to barrel forward through the pile to pick up some yards. This is a coaching point on defense: One guy stands the ball-carrier up, while the second guy tries to knock the ball loose. The only difference is that on this play, there were two guys standing him up and one guy swiping at the ball.
This angle adds further context to the impossibility of hanging onto the ball in this situation, with Ridley being ripped one way and the defender punching the ball the other way.
2012: vs. 49ers, Week 15
Ridley tried to get two hands on the ball before coughing up this one, but he was doomed from the start.
Couple the rain with a perfect helmet-on-ball hit by 49ers safety Donte Whitner, and that's just a perfect recipe for a forced fumble.
The two teams combined to fumble the ball eight times. Clearly, he was far from the only one affected by the rain on that night.
Could he have done more to protect the ball? Yes. If he had wrapped up the ball with two hands before Whitner got to him, he may have hung onto it.
2012: vs. Ravens, AFC Championship Game
It's hard to hold onto the football when you've been knocked unconscious. Granted, it was partly Ridley's own doing, as he dipped his head to try to plow through Ravens safety Bernard Pollard—with whom contact is risky business for anyone wearing a Patriots uniform, as Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski can all tell you.
There really isn't a lot Ridley could have done differently here. He saw Pollard going for a helmet-on-ball fumble like the one forced by Whitner a few weeks earlier, but in doing so, the two rammed heads and Ridley came out on the raw end of the deal.
2013: at Bills, Week 1
Ridley's fumble against the Bills was a combination of a few factors: a loss of balance, a lack of concentration and once again, poor technique carrying the ball.
He tried to make a move away from an oncoming defender, but in doing so, he slipped and fell. As he went to the ground, he tried to pick himself up off the ground, but he was already losing control of the ball.
That's when Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso came in from behind and knocked Ridley to the ground with the ball squirting around, ensuring Ridley wouldn't be able to recover.
Once Ridley fell, his first priority needed to be falling on the ball and covering it up. Don't try to be a hero, just save the ball and live to fight another day. Instead, the fumble was recovered by Buffalo and returned for a touchdown.
2013: vs. Steelers, Week 9
This fumble was remarkably similar to Ridley's fumble in the 2011 playoffs against the Broncos.
Brady was under pressure and threw to Ridley in the flat. The running back had hardly any time to secure the ball before Steelers safety Troy Polamalu flew in and made the tackle, but Polamalu wasn't going for just the tackle—he wanted the ball, and he swiped at it while Ridley fought to corral it.
Belichick was actually understanding this time, and gave Ridley a "get out of fumble jail free" card by putting him back in the game.
"I don't think Stevan really had much of a chance to do anything but turn," said Belichick. "Sometimes turnovers are a result of real good defensive plays. Sometimes they're the result of sloppy plays offensively. I would, unfortunately, have to credit that one to Polamalu. He made a great play on it and that's one of those things you have to live with."
Belichick could live with it and put Ridley back in the game—a decision which ultimately paid off, as he went off for over 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the day.
2013: at Panthers, Week 11
Brady called an audible on the line of scrimmage and checked to a shotgun handoff to Ridley. The running back took the handoff toward the left side of the line but had just one hand on the ball when Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short broke through the line, hammered down on the ball with his right hand and knocked the ball loose.
Another angle, though, indicated Ridley is not entirely to blame even though he displayed poor fundamentals with one hand on the ball as he hit the line of scrimmage. Short was supposed to be doubled by center Ryan Wendell and guard Dan Connolly, but he was able to break through the double-team before Ridley was able to hit the line of scrimmage.
While Ridley should probably have put two hands on the ball when he hit the line, it's hard to put him 100 percent at fault for this fumble.
2013: vs. Broncos, Week 12
Ridley went with one hand on the ball nearly as soon as he took the handoff, and Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard was able to get his helmet on the ball.
The fumble may have occurred whether Ridley had two hands on the ball or not, but after suffering almost the exact same fate the week before, you'd think Ridley would be extra cautious to secure the ball as he hit the line of scrimmage.
The recurring theme is that on nearly all of Ridley's fumbles, he has one hand on the ball. We can't expect him to constantly have two hands on it, as no back in the league has that level of discipline, but what Ridley lacks is that sixth sense of knowing when the defenders are coming and when he needs to cover the ball.
Some of these fumbles can be attributed to poor fundamentals, but some others are simply bad luck or great plays by the defense.
That being said, there is a precedent for running backs correcting those issues. The common Patriots comparison has been Kevin Faulk, who fumbled the ball 11 times in his first three years in the league and just four times in his final two years. Ridley, believe it or not, compares favorably to Faulk in that respect. Faulk fumbled once in every 33.8 touches in the first three years of his career; Ridley's fumble rate is one in every 51.7 touches.
That's just one example, but in the grand pantheon of fumblers, Ridley doesn't look too bad. In the first three years of his career, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson fumbled the ball once every 49.9 touches in the regular season. Since then, he has fumbled once every 118.4 touches.
Clearly, these problems can be fixed.
To be sure, Belichick doesn't completely turn his back on Ridley every time he fumbles. He has fumbled in 11 games; five times, he came back onto the field (once for one carry); six times, he was never heard from again for the rest of the game (once after being knocked out against the Ravens).
If the Patriots have lost faith in Ridley, it looks like they may be the last ones to find out about it.
Ridley's best traits are his burst and his toughness, and for those reasons, it's understandable that he'd continue to fight for extra yards, but he could greatly benefit from learning how and when to live to fight another play.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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