COMMENTARY | After an excellent 2012 season, the 2013 campaign looked like it nearly ground to an excruciating halt for the New England Patriots' Stevan Ridley before it had barely begun in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills. Early fumbling issues placed the team's starting running back on the bench and cast his future into question.
Since that time a spate of injuries on the offensive side of the ball have thrown the Patriots into disarray. Interestingly, they may benefit Ridley by giving him a second chance to prove himself as an up-and-coming star. He will immediately get an opportunity by being the feature back when New England takes on their divisional rival, the New York Jets, on Thursday, September 12.
A 2011 third-round draft pick out of LSU, the 24-year-old Ridley impressed last year, his first as a starter, by rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He gained 46 yards on nine carries in the first half against the Bills, but was pulled from the game following nearly losing the ball and finally coughing up an actual fumble. Coming on the heels of fumbling on his last play of the year in the 2012 playoffs against the Baltimore Ravens, it seemed like he was firmly entrenched in head coach Bill Belichick's doghouse.
Ridley's fate appeared to be sealed when his replacement, Shane Vereen, had a career game by rushing for 101 yards and hauling in seven passes for 58 yards. That big effort helped spark the Patriots to come from behind to nip Buffalo 23-21.
The team barely had time to savor their victory before the injuries set in and complicated their preparations for the Jets.
It turned out Vereen played most of the Buffalo game with a broken bone in his wrist. He was placed on injured reserve with intent to return, which will keep him out until at least Week 11 when the team faces the Carolina Panthers.
New England's receiving options are particularly hurting. According to their official injury report, star tight end Rob Gronkowski and No. 1 wide receiver Danny Amendola are doubtful and not expected to play against New York.
Receiver Aaron Dobson and tight end Zach Sudfeld, both rookies, have bad hamstrings and are listed as questionable. Even if they play, there are no guarantees of what they might contribute.
With quarterback Tom Brady's targets in flux, Ridley could take advantage and turn the team's bad situation in his favor by re-establishing himself as a proven commodity.
According to The Boston Globe's Adam Kaufman, Brady is comfortable with Ridley being in his backfield, stating, "I know Stevan is a very mentally tough kid. I love having him back there. I love giving the ball to him and watching him run."
If the running back can pump out a productive game against the Jets, he could make people forget about his brief benching.
Belichick doesn't expect Ridley's brief demotion to impact the player long-term. He explained to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, "I've talked to Stevan. Look, every player has the same responsibility every week- to be ready to play, to be ready to go. That's their job. They can't control coaches' decisions."
WEEI's Christopher Price pointed out that in the grand scheme of things, Ridley's fumbles don't stand out in an alarming way. He has coughed up the ball once for every 65.8 touches during the regular season during his career, which is great compared to superstar running back Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, who has fumbled once every 49.9 touches.
In addition to proving himself as a sound ball carrier, Ridley would also do well to improve his production in the passing game. He has just nine total receptions in his career, and hasn't had a catch in a game since Week 6 last year against the Seattle Seahawks. With so many receiving options experiencing maladies, any pass-catching production out of the backfield would be a nice boost to the offense.
An unfortunate series of events have granted Ridley a reprieve. While the Patriots would surely prefer to have their entire team healthy, it can also be a good thing if the running back uses this situation as a springboard to get his season back on track and help the team win games until their roster is back to full strength.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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