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Where in the World is James White?

The New England Patriots have lost two in a row, and three of their last five. Doesn’t get much more un-Belichick than that.

Brady In Pocket by Alan Kotok is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Where in the World is James White?

Estimated Reading Time: 3 Minutes

The New England Patriots have lost two in a row, and three of their last five. Doesn’t get much more un-Belichick than that. And in this stretch, one thing has stood out to me more than anything else when the Patriot offense has been on the field: where in the world is James White?

The Patriots offense has sputtered for much of the last month. And the players acknowledge it. Missed opportunities in the red zone, mental mistakes, Brady forcing throws, bad penalties, bizarre play calls (the fake reverse inside the 20 against Pittsburgh is a shining example)… there just seems to be more not to like than there is to like about the way the offense has played. There’s just no steady pace. No rhythm. Brady is at his best when there’s a groove. And when you think of rhythm, when you think of the Pats moving the ball down the field in chunks, you should probably be picturing James White on the field.

But lately, James White seems to be M.I.A. Bill. Josh. What’s going on here?

In their last five games, the Patriots have given White 10 or more touches only twice. In the first nine games of this season, White had 10 or more touches in all games BUT two (and one of those is Week 1, where he had nine). But there’s more to this story.

In the five games this season where White failed to get 10 or more touches, the Patriots are 1-4. New England has averaged 18 points of offense in those games, including three 10-point efforts. In the nine games White had 10 or more touches, the Patriots are 8-1 and averaged 32 points of offense per game. Is White the only factor here? Of course not. But I think the numbers are telling nonetheless.

A Crowded Backfield

The decline in the use of White as both a runner and receiver clearly stems from two factors: the emergence of Sony Michel as a solid first- and second-down back, and the return of a healthy Rex Burkhead. Burkhead has just been okay in his return, but seems to be more of a subtraction by addition if we are talking in terms of White’s production. And to me, his production is the most valuable of any back on the team- even Michel.

The eye test shows that the Patriots offense just clicks better with White playing a majority of the snaps in the backfield. Because it’s all about keeping Brady comfortable, and White is one of Brady’s guys. He can line up out wide as a receiver, pick up the block in pass protection, and holds on to the football when carrying it up the middle. In essence, he’s exactly what Brady needs: not a 1,000 yard featured guy, not a 250-pound bruiser, but a quick, possession back who can facilitate the uptempo offense Brady loves to work in.

The Patriots will once again benefit from playing in the worst division in football, and will back into the playoffs once either Miami loses another game, or the Patriots beat either the lowly Bills or Jets. And in these last two weeks, it’s imperative that the team work White back into a consistent role in the offense. Because come playoff time, if Brady doesn’t have a reliable check down option or effective draw play out of the backfield, the offense will stall out the same way it did against Pittsburgh this past Sunday.

Ryan Kelly lives in Cambridge, MA, a stone's throw away from his beloved Boston teams. When he is not working as an editorial assistant, he is providing commentary on the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins for The Turf.

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