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James White should be a household name after he set a Super Bowl record with 14 receptions and scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime less than two years ago against the Atlanta Falcons.
Somehow, he isn’t. The fact he’s so often overlooked—not just as a top running back, but also as the New England Patriots’ top offensive threat—is inane.
White goes about his business each and every week and never receives the credit he deserves, because everyone outside the organization worries more about others on the roster.
The reason is simple: Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a future Hall of Fame inductee and maybe the best ever to play his position, Josh Gordon presents a tantalizing set of skills, and Julian Edelman has an already established record as Tom Brady‘s favorite target in crucial situations.
They’re hot rods revving their engines. White, on the other hand, is the Honda Civic that racks up a ton of miles because it’s so damn dependable.
“James is like that guy that does no wrong,” safety Devin McCourty said, per the Boston Globe‘s Ben Volin. “… For us as a defense, we know when we go out there on Sunday, if James is in there on any capacity, any role, we have complete confidence, even if we don’t know what that is, just because of the type of worker he is and how consistent he is.”
Well, the Patriots played Monday this week and managed a 25-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. White once again did what he does even though New England experimented (Sony Michel was out with a knee injury) before utilizing its top back.
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson actually opened the contest in the backfield behind Brady. Patterson carried the ball 10 times—two more times than White—for a measly 38 yards.
When Brady needed a play, though, he knew exactly who to target.
A closer inspection under the hood reveals a little more than a basic engine; it’s the turbo edition. White is an ideal running back for the modern game. He’s not an old workhorse ready to carry the ball 20-30 times, though he’s capable of getting tough yards when necessary, as he did on the game’s only offensive touchdown:
Pro Football Focus @PFF
The Patriots are FINALLY able to get a touchdown with James White breaking through!
His production should be measured by touches, not carries.
White caught 10 passes for 79 yards to go along with eight carries for 15 yards.
“We don’t want to overload him, but at the same time he’s certainly capable of doing a significant amount for our football team in a lot of different ways,” head coach Bill Belichick said, per Volin. “So, we try to find a way for him to be productive without putting it all on his shoulders.”
The 26-year-old back falls into a category reserved for the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell (when he’s on the field), New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson and New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley. They’re more than running backs; they’re offensive weapons.
The value of each increases exponentially because of their ability to contribute in the passing game. White is as productive as any of them when used as a wide receiver:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
James White ran 13 routes from out wide, the 2nd-most by a running back in a game this season behind Alvin Kamara in Week 1.
Only Kamara (60) has run more routes from slot/wide alignment this season than White (59) among running backs.
#NEvsBUF #GoPats https://t.co/bI7vOdq4nY
White has led the team or tied for the team lead in receptions in six of eight contests this season. In fact, his 55 receptions through eight games are the third-most by a running back in league history, according to ESPN Stats & Info (via ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss). The fifth-year back ranks seventh overall in receptions ahead of standout wide receivers such as the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones, Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, Green Bay Packers’ Davante Adams and Cleveland Browns’ Jarvis Landry.
“He’s got to start sharing,” Gronkowski said, per Henry McKenna of Patriots Wire. “No, it’s well-deserved. The way that he focuses on his detail, on the route, the way he knows how to get open and just the little tiny details he knows how to do exactly on point to get open.”
Gronk’s initial comment was made in jest, but a kernel of truth exists in it.
The tight end has been the focal point of the offense because of his ability to create mismatches. He’s still a large part of the passing game, but the Bills found a way to disrupt his rhythm and effectiveness by manhandling the 6’6″, 268-pound target. Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano bullied him to a degree. Gronkowski didn’t get any free releases and fought with defenders all the way down the field. It took him out of his element since he’s usually the one determining the level of physicality.
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Gronkowski mustered three receptions for 43 yards.
Furthermore, the four-time All-Pro isn’t the most reliable option. He missed last week’s contest against the Chicago Bears with a back injury. A litany of injuries continues to mount, and he hasn’t played 16 games since the 2011 campaign.
Gordon, meanwhile, hasn’t been reliable, wearing out his welcome in Cleveland because of numerous suspensions. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Monday afternoon that Gordon would be disciplined during the Bills contest because of tardiness, yet the wide receiver was on the field in his usual starting spot when the game began.
However, the thought of “Here we go again” had to arise among Patriots fans. The 27-year-old receiver is gifted, and he’s performed well since the trade, though he’s only one misstep from never playing again.
Even Edelman, who led the team with 104 receiving yards, hasn’t been the same consistent presence after serving a four-game suspension for violating the policy against using performance-enhancing drugs. He averaged 49 receiving yards per game before his breakout against the Bills.
As good as each of those three options is, White is the difference-maker. His eight touchdowns lead the Patriots, while his six receiving scores top running backs across the league.
White is a perfect fit in the New England scheme and delivers in each contest. The Patriots know he’s the driving force behind their offensive success.
“We have a ton of confidence in James,” Belichick said, per Volin. “He does everything well for us.”
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.