Imagine forcing Tom Brady to choose between the two best third-down backs he's ever had. Even if you pumped him full of truth serum, it might make him feel like he was being asked to choose a favorite child or pliability exercise. Impossible.
Both Kevin Faulk and James White won three Super Bowl rings with Brady. Both were real factors in two of those runs. (White was inactive for the 2014 postseason; Faulk had 35 total yards in three games en route to Patriots Lombardi No. 1.) Both are among the most trusted targets — regardless of position — with whom Brady has played.
"I think he's a Patriot type of player," Brady said before Faulk's last game, Super Bowl XLVI. "He's tough, smart and he plays well under pressure. He's made some huge plays for us in our biggest games. The last time we played the Giants in the Super Bowl he had a huge game. If you look at the plays he's made over the years — catching the ball out of the backfield, blitz pickup — he can really do everything. It's great to have a guy like that in the backfield who understands what you're trying to do on every play."
"James has been an exceptional player for us," Brady said of White back in January. "Obviously, in the biggest games and we have so much trust in him and his ability to make the right decision. He’s great with the ball in his hands; run game, pass game. He’s just been an exceptional player in every way. A great teammate and they don’t make too many like him, so I think we’re all lucky to have him on our team playing, competing. That’s what it’s about — playing your best in the biggest games and James has always done that."
Luckily, we're not asking Brady to choose. We're asking you. But first let's dig into the tale of the tape.
As runners, Faulk and White are almost identically . . . average. Faulk, though, was given more opportunity in that role. He was a second-round pick in 1999 and had the lead-back gig during Bill Belichick's first season in New England in 2000. Though his job morphed into that of a third-down specialist, he finished his 13-year career with 864 attempts for 3,607 yards (a 4.17 yards-per-carry average) and 16 touchdowns. In 161 regular-season games, he averaged 5.36 carries per game.
White, meanwhile, has been almost exclusively a passing-game weapon since he entered the league as a fourth-round pick in 2014. As a rookie, he sat for all but three games behind veteran Shane Vereen, and every season since then more than 70 percent of his snaps have come on passing plays. Through five seasons White has rushed 207 times for 856 yards (a 4.14 yards-per-carry average) and seven touchdowns. In 63 regular-season games, he's averaged 3.29 carries per game.
Though Faulk (5-8, 205 pounds) and White (5-9, 204 pounds) were almost identically-built coming out of college — and though both had success at big-time college programs as all-purpose players — Faulk was more liberally deployed by Belichick in a variety of situations during his career. That's not to say White doesn't run between the tackles. He was forced into a more regular role as a runner in 2018 when injuries to Jeremy Hill, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead struck. And White's most memorable play as a professional came on a goal-line carry that put an exclamation point on the greatest comeback the sport has seen.
Faulk, it can't be forgotten, made big contributions as a returner as well — something White hasn't done. He averaged 9.3 yards per punt return over 101 opportunities in his career. He also returned 181 kicks at a clip of 22.6 yards per attempt and brought two back for scores in 2002.
The strengths of these two particular players isn't necessarily in their versatility, though. They're niche guys. At their best, they're receivers masquerading as runners — albeit receivers who aren't afraid to stick their noses into the chests of blitzing linebackers. And much like their yards-per-carry averages, their pass-catching averages are remarkably similar.
Faulk was targeted 573 times and caught 431 passes for 3,701 yards (8.59 yards per catch) during the regular season. He was targeted 3.55 times per game, on average, and he racked up a yards-per-target number of 6.46.
White? He's seen 340 regular-season targets and caught 248 passes for 2,164 yards (8.73 yards per catch). As the game has changed and Brady's number of attempts now hovers around 600 per season, it should come as little surprise that White has seen more targets per game (5.39) than Faulk did. White's yards-per-target number comes in slightly behind Faulk at 6.36.
So far it's a stalemate. Both have been extremely productive in a narrow-but-critical role. Both have been champions multiple times over. Both rose from tenuous starts — White unable to get on the field as a rookie, Faulk nearly fumbling away his opportunity early on. Both have been beloved by teammates, though different personalities.
White has maintained a quiet workmanlike approach that has impressed Brady even since White was a non-contributor fresh out of the University of Wisconsin. Now he's a captain and one of the team's faces. He's been a regular guest on our Monday Night Patriots program and a go-to for reporters as he's constantly available.
Faulk, as our guy Tom Curran noted here just before Faulk was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, went from guarded young player to veteran mentor and vocal leader. He wore his heart on his sleeve later in his Patriots career and into retirement, showing his support for Brady by wearing a No. 12 jersey to the NFL draft as the quarterback was in the throes of Deflategate. Faulk was most recently spotted at Patriots minicamp, taking on a quasi-coaching role that — who knows? — may lead to something more down the line.
So how do we separate these two players who've meant so much to the most accomplished quarterback in league history and the franchise that's accumulated half a dozen championships over their tenures?
Statistically — outside of Faulk's significant special-teams advantage — the differences are relatively negligible. Their average games, playoffs included, look like this . . .
Faulk: 5.6 rush attempts, 23.7 yards rushing, 3.75 targets, 2.84 catches, 24.2 yards receiving, 47.9 total yards
White: 3.3 rush attempts, 13.4 yards rushing, 5.74 targets, 4.08 catches, 35.2 yards receiving, 48.6 total yards
Faulk was the more productive runner, thanks in part to greater opportunity. White has been the more productive receiver, thanks in part to greater opportunity.
Where White probably has the edge on Faulk is in the memorable moments category. Both have scored exactly 34 touchdowns, meaning White is sure to finish well beyond Faulk's career number there. And White's MVP-caliber performance in Super Bowl LI can't be ignored. He served as one of the primary catalysts to bring the Patriots back from 28-3. He caught 14 passes that day, a Super Bowl record, for 110 yards and a touchdown. (White caught 15 passes against the Chargers in last season's Divisional Round, tying an NFL postseason record.) He ran for two more scores against the Falcons, including the game-winner, and he took a direct-snap two-point conversion mirroring Faulk's signature moment from New England's 2003 Super Bowl win over the Panthers.
Faulk had other memorable playoff performances of his own, including an eight-catch, 82-yard showing against the Chargers in the 2007 AFC title game and a seven-catch performance two weeks later in a failed bid for perfection. But he had just one postseason touchdown in his career, and in 19 playoff games he has fewer catches (51 to 54) and receiving yards (412 to 444) than White has had in 11 playoff games.
Faulk has had a career that has spanned more than twice White's to this point. He was the more productive ball-carrier and return man. If longevity and versatility are your thing, then he probably has to be your guy. But when it comes to executing the role for which both players are known, few have done it better in big moments than White.
One already owns a red jacket. The other, if he keeps this up, is well on his way.
Who's the better Patriots third-down back?— NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSBoston) July 2, 2019
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