When James White went down with an injury and was carted off from the Patriots eventual loss to the Saints, the impact to the offense was immediately apparent without their most reliable piece. Through two games, the resurgent running back led the team with 12 catches and was the source of the Pats' first first down of Sunday's contest.
Without White, the Patriots leaned into veteran Brandon Bolden in the critical receiving back role. Bolden is no stranger to filling in at running back when injuries strike, but replacing White is asking a lot of the ninth-year pro who has just 18 total catches in his last five seasons. Bolden had three carries for -1 yard and three catches on four targets for 23 yards against the Saints, including a long of 14 yards.
"Brandon has by far the most experience of that group and certainly in the situation we were in yesterday, so you know, I thought he did a good job of handling it," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning. "That's been a role that he's had in the past, and fortunately, we haven't needed him to do that very often, but when he has, he's done a pretty good job, and I thought he did a decent job for us yesterday. Being thrown into that situation, he handled a lot of blitz responsibilities and patterns, formation, so forth. Ended up being a passing game most of the second half, so I thought he handled it pretty well, but we'll see going forward."
There's no debating how much White has meant to the Patriots over the course of his eight years in New England. Since taking over the third-down role in his second season, White has missed just five games due to injury as he's been a model of stability. In his career, he has 381 catches and 319 rushes, and while he's primarily known for his third-down work, he's still a balanced back who sets the tone in the running back room.
While we await White's prognosis, the signs are pointing toward a significant injury that at best will cause him to miss a significant portion of the 2021 season and at worst, could be the end of White's impressive career as he wraps up a one-year deal that he signed with the team last offseason.
For the first time in a long time, there isn't a clear succession plan for White's role. Kevin Faulk was the model of consistency in the 2000's until the role transferred to Shane Vereen and then to White. The only other time the Pats had to scramble like they would have to now is when Faulk went down in the second week of 2010 forcing the team to go out and sign Danny Woodhead after he was waived by the Jets. Woodhead would go on to three productive seasons with the Patriots before Vereen was ready to take over in 2013.
The Patriots saw Rex Burkhead depart to Houston this offseason and then traded Sony Michel to the Rams during the summer, leaving them limited options, though Michel certainly wouldn't be considered a White replacement given his skill set. Burkhead on the other hand would be nice to have in the mix right now. But the cupboards aren't empty, they're just unproven.
Rhamondre Stevenson had a fumble in Week 1 and has been inactive for the last two games. Stevenson showed some ability to catch in college and during training camp. He had 28 catches in two seasons at Oklahoma, but he still seems a long way off from being a true passing back in the NFL and will likely never been a strictly third-down option.
J.J. Taylor is another interesting player who hasn't gotten much of a chance this season. In 2020, Taylor had 16 rushing attempts in the first three games, but in 2021 he's played just 15 snaps with three rushing attempts and two catches. Even with Stevenson out, the team leaned even more heavily into Damien Harris and White, and then Bolden once White went down. Taylor was electric in the preseason, whether he was running, catching or returning, as was Stevenson, who had an especially impressive long touchdown run against the Washington Football Team.
Both Taylor and Stevenson showed a lot of promise this summer and that seemed to be a reason why the team felt okay moving on from Michel. But thus far, neither has earned a significant role on offense. White's injury should change that.
The Pats have three options -- count on the steady Bolden, take a chance on the diminutive Taylor or throw the rookie Stevenson back into the fire. Each potential move has its own positives and negatives and perhaps the answer is some combination of all of them. Stevenson and Taylor are risky in pass protection but offer a higher potential ceiling than Bolden and more opportunity for big plays like we saw from both of them in the preseason.
What's undeniable is that the offense must find a way to improve their attack. One of the running backs will have to step up and the offense will evolve into something new, but there's no question that there will be a huge void without James White in the locker room or on the field.