The New England Patriots’ James White put on a show in the Super Bowl. He and the Green Bay Packers’ Ty Montgomery have much in common, including each having his NFL breakout moment in the season just ended.
One major coincidence they share is a switching of positions or roles. White was a running back in college, but has steadily evolved into being primarily a receiving threat with New England. Montgomery was a wide receiver in college and the NFL, until coach Mike McCarthy declared him to be a running back in mid-December. Big Mike recently reiterated he’ll stay at that position in 2017.
White had a nice college career at the University of Wisconsin. From 2010 through 2013, he rushed for just over 4,000 yards, and averaged an impressive 6.2 yards per carry along the way. He rushed for over 100 yards in a game 17 times, despite sharing carries with John Clay, Montee, Ball, and Melvin Gordon. His performance in the Super Bowl might not have been such a surprise to Badgers fans.
The Patriots selected White in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, 130th overall. He was inactive in all but three games in his first year as a pro. Things didn’t pick up much in 2015: 22 rushes for 56 yards and 40 catches for 410 yards. In the regular season just ended, however, he had 39 rushes for 166 yards and 60 catches for 551 yards. Bill Belichick’s development of the third-year dual-threat has been proceeding nicely.
In his first two playoff games, White had zero net rushing yards and four catches for 27 yards. The world was therefore shocked when he went wild in the Super Bowl: 14 catches for 110 yards and six rushes for 29 yards, including three touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Those 14 catches are a Super Bowl record.
Equally surprising to me, White’s athleticism is ordinary at best. His 40-yard dash time was 4.57, he ranked in the 13th percentile (among running backs) as to his burst, and in the 57th percentile regarding his agility. His size is only 5’9” and 204 pounds, but he is very strong, having recorded 23 bench presses.
So how did he become one of the two heroes of Super Bowl LI? I must conclude that the Patriots saw what his best fit on the team would be, brilliantly developed him and called plays for him on Sunday that maximized his abilities. The Pats put him in a position to be successful and they have the Lombardi Trophy as their reward.
Montgomery played at Stanford from 2011-14. He led the nation with a 31.2 kick return average in his junior year. As a receiver, he had 172 catches for 2,125 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The Packers put him on the field right away as a rookie in 2015, but his season was limited due to injuries. In 2016, Montgomery appeared in 18 of the team’s 19 games, missing only the October 30 Falcons’ game due to an illness (never fully explained) related to a “sickle cell trait.” His stats were extremely up and down on the season. In his first five games he was given the ball five times, all rushes, for six yards total. He also went from no catches in his first four games to 20 catches in the next two games.
His breakout game at his new position came against the Bears in frigid Chicago on December 18: 16 carries, 162 yards, and two TDs. The rest of the way, however, including the three playoff games, he rushed for only 23, 44, 27, 47, and 17 yards.
Montgomery’s athleticism is superior to White’s. His dash time is 4.55, his burst is ranked in the 90th percentile, and his agility is ranked in the 68th percentile, though his bench press total was only 16. His vertical leap is over eight inches greater than White’s. Montgomery is 6’ tall and he finished college at 221 pounds. He dropped about 10 pounds in 2015 to be a quicker receiver, but put it back on for running back purposes and ended the year at a very buff 225 or so pounds.
Everything I’ve seen tells me that Montgomery has a much higher ceiling than White. But I also believe that the realization of an NFL player’s potential is very dependent on how his coach utilizes his talents.
It took Bill Belichick and the Pats a while, but James White has found his place with New England. I think things will be more difficult for him now that the secret is out. I view White as another in a long list of receivers with modest abilities – like Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan – who the Patriots have made the most of.
Meanwhile, the Packers usage of Montgomery has been erratic. After his breakout game as a rusher, play caller McCarthy called Ty’s number fewer than nine times per game over the remaining five contests. I’d say that’s a lack of commitment by the head man.
It will be interesting to follow the trajectories of Montgomery and White in the 2017 season. Whether, and in what round, the Packers draft a running back in late April, and what they decide to do regarding Eddie Lacy, will give us early clues as to how much stock the Packers’ general manager and coach place in their newly-converted running back.