James White was a Super Bowl hero for Patriots, but a bigger role didn't follow

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — New England Patriots running back James White hopped up on the riser, and had barely settled into his chair when the first question came at him.

The question was, of course, about last year’s Super Bowl. White became a part of history by scoring the first overtime game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl history.

“It’s pretty much in the past,” White said Tuesday. “It’s over with. I’m focused on this year. Focused on the Eagles.”

The funny thing about White’s Super Bowl heroics is it seemed like that was his first step in becoming a featured part of the Patriots offense. It wasn’t just the game-winning score; White had 139 total yards against the Falcons and set a Super Bowl record with 14 catches. White could have easily won MVP (Tom Brady had a Super Bowl-record 466 yards and was clearly deserving), and it’s arguably the greatest performance for a Patriots player in a Super Bowl aside from Brady. The Patriots even rewarded him with a three-year, $12 million extension even though he had a year left on his rookie deal, which seemed to be a sign that White had earned a bigger job with the Patriots after what he did in the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots running back James White celebrates a touchdown against the Titans. (AP)

And then … well, not a whole lot. White didn’t exactly turn into Jonas Gray, who infamously was pushed out by the team almost immediately after appearing on a Sports Illustrated cover. But a bigger role never materialized this season. He had 717 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns last season. This season those numbers moved to 600 and three. White played just 33.6 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps this regular season, according to Pro Football Reference.

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It’s not like White has been put in the doghouse or he’s being phased out. The Patriots, and particularly coach Bill Belichick, have always spoken highly of him. He still has his normal role, it’s just that it didn’t really expand. This is just life for a New England running back, even a Super Bowl legend.

“We all have our roles on the team,” White said. “One week you may play 10 snaps, one week you may play 60 snaps. It doesn’t matter to me. I want to put my best foot forward when the opportunity presents itself.”

The Patriots signed White to the extension in April, and he admitted he was surprised because he still had a year left on his contract. But even though the Patriots gave White the type of deal they rarely give running backs, they added a few too. Mike Gillislee came over from the Buffalo Bills. Rex Burkhead was signed from the Cincinnati Bengals. Dion Lewis returned too. They all took turns on the Patriots running back carousel.

White described the Patriots as a “game plan offense,” which sums it up well. White’s talents as a receiver out of the backfield were perfect for Super Bowl LI, and especially when New England needed to come back from a 28-3 deficit. Some games early this season, Gillislee’s power running were featured. Burkhead was the focal point against some opponents. Lewis took over as the workhorse late in the season. It’s almost impossible to predict which back will be on center stage in Sunday’s Super Bowl. That has been the Patriots’ approach at running back for years, and at most positions. Unless you’re a Brady or Rob Gronkowski, you’re mostly just an interchangeable cog in the machine.

“It’s challenging, but you have to stay focused,” Lewis said. “Whenever I get an opportunity, I try to make a play for my team … the more I can do that, the more opportunities I’ll have to get the ball.”

White was an enduring hero of last year’s Super Bowl. He might be a big part of this year’s Super Bowl, though nobody knows. He has been reluctant to relive last year’s game in the lead-up to this year’s game against the Eagles. Perhaps it’s because past accomplishments don’t necessarily open the door for more playing time on the Patriots.

“It’s a what have you done for me lately league,” White said. “You have to put your best foot forward.”

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!