Monday, May 8, 2017

The Art Of Football, Part 2: Clutch White Leads Stable Of Young Greyhounds in Patriots' Backfield

When push came to shove in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots turned to the man they call "Sweet Feet".

James White has spent his entire football career sharing the backfield with runners who were considered more explosive and dynamic in their skill sets and, indeed, many that he's shared backfields with since high school have found their way to rosters around the National Football League...
White mobbed by teammates after scoring the Super Bowl winner

...splitting time with Giovanni Bernard at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida - where his creative writing teacher pinned his nickname on him - then with names like John Clay, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon in his four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, taking a back seat to all three, but still able to distinguish himself.

In 2010, he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year after putting up a stat line of 1052 yards on just 156 carries, a mammoth 6.7 yards per carry, and finding paydirt 14 times.  With Ball ahead of him in his Sophomore and Junior seasons, his touches went down precipitously, though he was still able to maintain an average of over six yards per carry...

...and then enjoyed his finest season as a Senior, logging 1444 yards on 215 carries and putting himself on the radar for selection in the NFL draft.

Fighting the notion that Wisconsin running backs' numbers and talent were inflated due to the exceptional quality of the Badgers run blocking scheme - and the subsequent busts of high draft picks Ron Dayne, Clay and Ball through the recent past did nothing but encourage the notion - it was clear that New England Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick saw White as a passing back, a Shane Vereen-like talent, breaking the mold of big-bodied Badgers bell cows.

So sharing the backfield with other talented runners was nothing new to White, as he found himself competing for touches with seasoned NFL veterans in LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis - and it took injuries to both during the 2015 season for White to get his shot to show what he could do for the Patriots, the momentum from the stretch run spilling over into the 2016 season, when White subtly emerged as a legitimate weapon.

There's that word.  Subtle.  It may be the best way to describe White's running style, as when used as an adjective, the word is defined as "being so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe" - which certainly pertains to his elusiveness, utilizing a toe drag that would make a hockey player envious and a stutter step that leaves linebackers grasping at air.

He doesn't have pronounced video game moves, so he's not thought of as an explosive runner, and he doesn't possess blazing speed, so he's not what one might consider a home run threat - what he is, is dependable and consistent, and he gets what the Patriots' offense is all about.

White very quietly had the best season for a passing back in Belichick's nearly two decades long tenure as master of the franchise, surpassing Vereen and the great Kevin Faulk for catches in a season with 60 and averaging nearly 10 yards per catch - but he was rarely used in the running game for the third consecutive year, averaging 4.3 yards on 40 carries.

And he had no carries at all in the divisional round of the playoffs against Houston and just one inconsequential touch in the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh as Blount and Lewis shouldered the load on the ground for New England - but when Belichick called his name in the Super Bowl, White delivered perhaps the most epic performance in the history of the game.

Eight of his touches went for first downs, three went for touchdowns and one went for a crucial two-point conversion, meaning that 12 of his twenty touches either moved the chains or caused numbers to change on the scoreboard - and most of that happening at just about the time that quarterback Tom Brady caught on fire.

White is the latest example of what Belichick describes as the kind of "Smart, tough, dependable" player that he's come to count on the most when the chips are down.

"In critical situations, you can count on those players to perform under pressure.  You can count on those players to execute what you want to execute as a team." Belichick said recently at a coaching clinic at Ohio State University. "The tougher the game, the more critical the game, the more important the situation, the more I want the tough, smart, dependable player in the game, in the eye of the storm."

The Patriots are stacked to the ceiling with those types of players - Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Marcus Cannon, Duron Harmon and Dont'a Hightower are other examples of this phenomenon - and all come through in the clutch, and when Brady and Belichick need a play, there is no hesitation whatsoever in calling any of their numbers...

...and, indeed, they all came up big on the biggest of stages in February, but it was White who had the ball in his hands when it came time to put the ball in the end zone, and with Edelman, Chris Hogan and Cannon crashing down to deliver key blocks to isolate White in the right flat, where he powered through a couple of arm tackles to score the winning points in Super Bowl 51.

Why White in that situation when Blount had handled that situation all season and scored an NFL-high 18 touchdowns on typically short-yardage dive plays?  Because having a dual threat in the backfield at that moment caused the Falcons to have to account for White in both the run and passing game, while having the one-dimensional power back in Blount would have allowed Atlanta to play in a heavy goal line package.

Brady spread out the defense and once the ball was snapped, the Patriots formed a wall of humanity that shielded off eight defenders once Edelman and Hogan crashed down the line, so it was up to White to find a seam, make a cut and end the game.

This offseason, Belichick opted to find more runners that could bring the same package no matter the down and distance, and let Blount hit free agency where has yet to find work - signing up former Cincinnati Bengal Rex Burkhead off the market and making an offer in restricted free agency to Buffalo Bills backup Mike Gillislee...

...which, when added to White and the fragile-yet-electric Lewis, gives New England four runners that are equally adept at curling out into the pattern as they are taking the hand off, forcing the opposition into constant nickel and dime situations that naturally open up the seam for the tight ends and also lightens the run defense and trumps the explosiveness of the pass rush.

So with four multi-tool greyhounds in the running back stable, the Patriots' offense is going to be even less predictable than they have been in the recent past, and they lose nothing in the passing game by hauling out the "Pony" formation - that is, having two backs on the field - as all are able to split wide, or into the slot, or simply stay at Brady's side for a shotgun hand off or to pick up the blitz, another requirement of Belichick backs.

The Patriots have loaded up at every single position on the field, and have so much talent across the board that the only problem that Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has is finding enough touches to keep everyone happy - but at least they know that when the chips are down and the situation is most critical, they can count on James White to come through.

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