Patriots Hall of Fame running back Kevin Faulk is the measuring stick when it comes to running backs catching passes and making plays out of the backfield in the New England offense.
But much like technology, roles and players evolve with time and according to veteran Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, what James White is doing and is capable of doing at the position is, well, ‘special.’
Certainly the numbers back it up. White is coming off a career year in which he set New England franchise records for running backs in terms of catches (87) and receiving yards (751) while tying the mark for touchdown receptions (7).
Some have argued that the Patriots use of their running backs actually got too predictable a year ago, that White’s presence in the game indicated a pass while rookie Sony Michel’s arrival on the field was a tell for a running play. The idea is that Michel – and to some degree rookie Damien Harris – need to get more involved in the passing game when they are on the field.
Fears isn’t so sure about that.
“Sony is fine in the passing game, will be fine. I feel Damien is probably similar. He’s not James White, guys. He’s not James White. If I have a chance to throw it to James, I’m going to throw it to James,” Fears exclaimed. “They’ll get their passing game, in the play-action passing game as it goes, or the drop-back passing game. But if I have a guy that’s special on that field, I’m going to use him.”
The numbers back up Fears’ confidence. Whereas Faulk caught 56 or more passes just once in his 13 seasons in Foxborough, White has topped the mark in each of the last three years. Sure, it’s to some degree a different era in terms of NFL passing but some of it is the elite talent that the former fourth-round pick White brings to the role.
Now in his 18th season as the New England running backs coach and 29th on an NFL sideline, Fears has overseen plenty of talented pass catchers over the years. Faulk’s impact speaks for itself in terms of big plays in big games, but Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and others certainly made a positive impression.
While Fears seemed to hesitate when asked if White was the best he’s had at the position, likely out of respect to Faulk, the excitement in the coach’s voice told the story. And he stands by the ‘special’ description.
“Oh my gosh, yes. Yes. No doubt about it,” Fears said, going on to sound almost giddy as to what White can accomplish moving forward.
“The best is hard to quantify. But let put it this way, he’s good. That’s what counts. That definitely counts. When you say those (other) guys’ names, you have to say James White. Now Kevin, Kevin was the first and did some spectacular things. James White has done some awful good stuff and has a lot ahead of him. And it’s yet to be seen where this is going to end when it comes to James White. I think we have a lot to see and I think there is a lot for him to show us. And I’m kind of waiting to be a part of that. I can’t wait to see it.”