FOXBORO — The moment Stevan Ridley juked Champ Bailey, then rolled over the future Hall of Famer on the way to the end zone for a touchdown, the minds of Patriots fans everywhere could almost be seen reaching the same conclusion.
After seven long years, the wait is over for the New England Patriots.
For the first time since Corey Dillon ran New England to the 2004 Super Bowl title, the Patriots are now finally taking the field with a true No. 1 running back, and his name is Stevan Ridley.
That is, as long as he holds onto the football.
The second year back was on fire against the Denver Broncos, rushing for a career-high 151 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown, leading a Patriots backfield that finished with 251 yards, its second straight contest of over 200 on the ground.
But his career day ended on a down note, when he fumbled with 5:19 left and was benched the rest of the way.
“The game didn’t end the way I wanted it to,” said a conflicted Ridley. “But, besides that, I’m thankful for what I accomplished. We can’t be a one-dimensional offense, and I just have to say it’s awesome to be able to do all I can.”
The coaching staff may have been teaching him a lesson after the fumble, but that was not about to make his teammates lose faith in the running back.
“He’s been unbelievable,” said offensive lineman Donald Thomas. “To have three games over 100 yards in only five games shows how serious he is taking the season. He’s worked so hard to get here, and he’s doing some great things out there.”
Watching Ridley run is clearly a different experience than watching the running backs the Patriots have fielded in the years since their last Super Bowl victory.
This is not the solid-but-unspectacular BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who did surpass 1,000 yards two years ago, but did so 3 unimpressive yards at a time, and would never have been mistaken for a game-breaker.
And Green-Ellis was the highlight of a mediocre group of backs who featured the severe disappointment of Laurence Maroney and the likes of Sammy Morris and Danny Woodhead who were never meant to be anything other than situational players.
Yesterday was further evidence that Ridley belongs in a different class. It was more proof that Ridley has that certain “special” quality that everyone since Dillon in his prime (not in his iffy final two seasons) have not possessed.
He has 490 yards for the season, the most for a Patriot through five games since Dillon’s 522 on his way to a team-record 1,635 yards.
Maybe his prettiest run of the game was at 5:53 in the fourth, when he slipped through a small hole, shook a tackler and rolled 20 yards for a first down.
That showed not only the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder’s speed, but his rare ability to find that tiny crease and earn the yards many backs cannot, turning short gains into quality gains, and sometimes big plays.
“That helps us out a lot,” said Thomas. “It makes it a lot easier because, when things aren’t crystal clear, he’s going to stick his nose in there and get what he can and sometimes more. Not everything has to be clean every time he touches the ball.”
In other words, it’s not Maroney running into the backs of linemen and flopping down.
But it wasn’t all great news for Ridley. His fumble late in the fourth allowed the Broncos one more chance to fight back into the game, and after the turnover he was replaced by rookie back Brandon Bolden for the game’s final possession.
The lesson: If you fumble, you will not play, just as he was benched after a pair of fumbles a season ago.
“I told myself to hold onto the football,” said Ridley. “You can’t make excuses. I messed up. I’m sure coach is going to have something to say about it. But there is always another day tomorrow.”
As long as the ball is securely in his hands, however, Patriots on both sides of the ball love to have the aggressive back on their side.
“It’s fun for us to watch guys run the ball,” said defensive captain Jerod Mayo. “It gives us time to make adjustments and get our energy back. He’s doing a great job running hard. He’s not running out of bounds. He’s lowering his shoulder, and that’s what you want out of a running back.”