But no matter what era we discuss, one thing remains certain: if you want to stay on the field despite a fumbling bug, you better be significantly more talented than the alternatives. Dickerson and Peterson never had that concern, but we can't say the same about Stevan Ridley.
New England's Sunday night victory over Denver was largely a game of mistakes, with Ridley firing the first shot. His fourth carry became a turnover - and a gift 60-yard touchdown return for the Broncos - and he never saw the field again. Brandon Bolden racked up 58 yards and a rushing touchdown off the bench, while Shane Vereen was handy in the receiving game. (LeGarrette Blount's evening was also cut short by a fumble lost.)
I'm a Ridley fan and I've supported him more than most pundits, but does he offer anything the Patriots can't get anywhere else? It's an overly simplistic way of looking at things, but Ridley's YPC is 4.3 this season and 4.5 for his career. Compare that to Bolden (5.2/5.0), Blount (4.6/4.6) and Vereen (5.6/4.4) and you grasp the point; New England has a deep collection of running backs, and security issues - rightly or wrongly - are treated as a punishment. It's going to take a lot for me to start Ridley again this fantasy season.
Vereen picks up bonus snaps his outstanding receiving skill (the offense looks completely different with him on the field), and he's only fumbled once in his pro career. Bolden doesn't have an NFL turnover yet. Ridley, meanwhile, has nine fumbles (six lost) since 2011, not counting his critical fumble (off a teeth-chattering hit) in last year's AFC Championship Game. He's also fumbled in each of the last three games. Don't blame this one on the coaches; Ridley is making his own problems.
If you want to complain about New England's player usage, I'll be more sympathetic if we talk about the wideouts. Aaron Dobson was stapled to the bench in Sunday's second half, while Kenbrell Thompkins (6-56, nine targets) ran with the starters. Did Dobson make a first-half mistake that drew the coaching staff's ire? Is there a hidden injury at play here? Did the windy conditions force the Patriots to focus more on the short and lateral passing game over downfield strikes?
It's nothing more than a guess from my office, but I wonder if New England decided Sunday's conditions were more fitting of the Julian Edelman skill set (short patterns, rub routes and option routes, run after the catch) over Dobson's best skill (working deep, stretching the field). You can't be too aggressive throwing deep when the winds are whipping, and Dobson's underneath routes need a lot of work. Granted, we were throwing the same critique at Thompkins not long ago.
And you know the Patriots, of course. They won't tell us anything. They never do.
Add it all up and we're left with the fourth-highest scoring team in the league and more fantasy questions than answers. Tom Brady is back in the circle of trust, of course, and Rob Gronkowski is going to get fed every week. Vereen seems to have a role secured. After that, it's all about matchups, momentum, and guessing.
The New Orleans setup, in a general sense, is similar. The Saints are run by a coaching genius and a Hall of Fame quarterback who's more brainy than brawny. The tight end will be featured just about every week, but it's difficult to get a finger on how everyone else's targets and touches will be distributed.
Is this a Marques Colston week, or a Mark Ingram game? Is there a Kenny Stills pattern? Is there any fantasy owner who hasn't been frustrated by Pierre Thomas or Darren Sproles at one time or another? When the Saints farm out a short touchdown to a lesser player, do you take it personally?
We talked about the opposite theme in this space six weeks ago, the lack of complication with Chicago's offensive distribution. Pretty much it's Forte, Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett - and that's it. Alas, Marc Trestman isn't completely immune to bouts of cuteness and overthinking - note the Michael Bush follies in the loss at St. Louis. If you missed Bush's carries in your Sunday routine (and yes, he did fall into one touchdown), consider yourself lucky. Some things you can't unsee.
Nonetheless, I'll give Trestman the benefit of the doubt - while I can't prove it, I think he's just trying to find plays that will work. As for the Pats and Saints, it's a little different - it always seems like they're trying to validate genius as they beat you. Maybe it's a minor critique to make, given the success both franchises have posted. But the tricky usage patterns are something we have to factor into our fantasy planning every week. You have to study the coaches, too. You have to watch the detectives.
As for the rest of Week 12, here are some quick-hitter thoughts:
• A curious pattern emerges if you look at how often teams are throwing to their running backs. Into Monday's action, here's the trailing seven in running-back receptions: Redskins, Seahawks, Niners, Dolphins, Titans, Jets, Rams. The leading teams stack up this way: Saints, Falcons, Chargers, Chiefs, Lions, Bears.
Consider the quarterbacks at play here - it's almost all young QBs in the thin group, and almost all veteran QBs in the deeper pool. It's difficult to say where the credit and blame belongs - perhaps the kids aren't using checkdowns as often as they could, and perhaps their coordinators aren't being creative with their pass-catching backs. But I'm not going to write this off as a coincidence.
One thing I'm certain on - I want my quarterback to have passing options out of the backfield. While Gronkowski is clearly New England's most important skill player, it sure looks like Vereen is second. And consider the career path of Philip Rivers - he was terrific in the days with Sproles and he's having a ball with Danny Woodhead. The years in between, things fell apart.
• If the Buccaneers had a quicker hook on Josh Freeman - the summer, perhaps - maybe they'd be in the playoff hunt now. The Bucs should have beaten the Jets and Saints in the opening two weeks, and they had the early jump on New England in Week 3. Mike Glennon didn't play well in his Week 4 debut against Arizona's criminally-underrated defense, but he's been sharp since. Look at the glittering numbers in November: 119.7 rating, seven touchdowns, one pick, 8.9 YPA.
• History is going to bookmark the Pats and Broncos game from Week 12, given the narratives and the major comeback, but after a night's reflection, I don't think it was the best game of the week. The Chiefs and Chargers offered more lead changes and less mistakes. Maybe we'll circle this one and look back, too, identifying it as the Ladarius Green breakout party. He'll probably be on every single sleeper and breakout list next year.
• Eli Manning and Case Keenum both looked overly conservative in Week 12, for slightly different reasons. Manning is trying to avoid picks at all costs, of course, while Keenum played like someone recently benched for no strong reason. If you want to run your offense this way, you better have an overwhelming defense - think the Baltimore Ravens during their first championship run. Obviously New York and Houston aren't blessed with that fallback.
I've been patient on Victor Cruz all year, but that looks like a mistake now (hat tip, Jersey). And maybe the brief Andre Johnson party that everyone enjoyed is essentially fizzled out. This is not to suggest either wideout is all of a sudden cuttable, but I'm taking expectations down significantly with both. Bad things happen when you mess with the quarterback's head.