“I think last year we couldn’t take advantage of him. “

James White. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

One play last Sunday suggests how much different James White’s 2021 season might look compared to a subpar 2020.

Facing yet another blitz from the Miami Dolphins on 3rd-and-7 in the third quarter last Sunday, rookie quarterback Mac Jones recognized pre-snap his pass-catching running back would have a one-on-one matchup with linebacker Jerome Baker on a wheel route out of the backfield.

Without hesitation, Jones dropped a touch throw over Baker right into White’s hands with little room to spare. The play picked up 26 yards to extend a field-goal scoring drive and was the highlight of White’s six-catch, 49-yard performance.

It’s the kind of play White has made throughout his time as the Patriots’ third-down back but was missing from his highlight tape in 2020.

New England’s running back coach Ivan Fears suggested the change in quarterback play from this year to last might have something to do with that.


“I never thought he dropped off,” Fears said when asked about White’s play. “I think last year we couldn’t take advantage of him. New scheme. Young. The way we’re doing things. New quarterback. This guy (Mac) has the chance to take advantage of James. It’ll be a good thing for James. Utilize the things that he does well.”

On one hand, that obviously speaks well of Jones’s passing acumen, and the results on Sunday seemed to back up Fears’s assertions.

On the other, it’s hard to ignore the subtle dig at Cam Newton, who started all but one game at quarterback last season for the Patriots.


With Newton at the helm, White saw his lowest numbers of catches, targets, and receiving yards since 2015 — his second NFL season. Back then, he was still splitting duties with backs like Brandon Bolden and Dion Lewis. Last year, he simply didn’t get the opportunities as Newton and the passing game struggled to produce.

As such, it’s worth wondering how much of a say Fears and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had in the Patriots’ decision to elevate Jones to the starting role based on what the rookie quarterback could do for White, Damien Harris, and the rest of the running backs in the passing game.


Though Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson had notable fumbling issues on Sunday that clouded their performances, Fears had more positive things to say about the veteran White.

“He blocked well, he ran the ball as hard as he could, took a hell of a lot of hits in the game and he made some plays in the passing game,” the coach said. “That’s James White. He looks good. He’s had a great camp and it showed in the first game.”