Stevan Ridley has a lot to prove in 2014. (USA TODAY Images)

The timing of Stevan Ridley’s off year came at a tough time for the veteran running back, who now finds himself at a critical crossroads heading into the 2014 season.

For the Patriots, it’s the perfect situation. They have a player who is heading into the final year of his contract with everything to prove as he plays out a season to hopefully earn himself a new deal. For Ridley, he’s trying to battle back from a frustrating season that saw him lose multiple fumbles and saddled him with a reputation that he’s trying to shed.

It has to be frustrating for Ridley, who one earlier had rushed for 1263 yards along with 12 touchdowns in 2012. That seemed to have him poised for a big season in 2013, but unfortunately fumble troubles gave LeGarrette Blount an opportunity to see more playing time and limited the amount of carries Ridley had as he fought through his issues for much of last season. Blount’s since departed, which now has newcomers James White and Roy Finch among players trying to earn a role in the backfield.

Losing the football wasn’t necessarily the primary issue for Ridley, since, after all, no player is perfect. But he had two that resulted in touchdowns and were hard to for head coach Bill Belichick to ignore.

The first happened in the opener on the road in Buffalo when he lost a fumble down in Bills territory that was returned for a touchdown. That swung the game from a potential 17-0 lead for New England to instead giving Buffalo momentum after they closed the lead to 10-7. It happened again at home against Denver on the Patriots opening drive, after the Patriots had just crossed midfield. The fumble and resulting touchdown gave Denver a 7-0 lead on a night New England would ultimately end up having to score 31 second half points before beating them in overtime. After the fumble, Ridley had to watch it all unfold from the sideline.

Moments like those are ones he’s likely trying to make distant memories and for now, although the contract is in the back of his mind, being productive his his priority.

“I have to be honest about it. It’s there, but it’s not my first concern,” Ridley told the Boston Herald. “My first concern is going out there and being the best player for this team. I think if I go out there and have a productive year and do what I need to do, the contract will take care of itself.

“I’m not really going to put too much thought into it because I think as you guys know, if I start thinking about that, I could easily be a distraction. I can’t really worry with that. I’m going to have some good days, going to have some bad days but I’m going to keep working, keep my head in the dirt and grinding it out.”

According  to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, at this point, Ridley and the Patriots haven’t discussed the possibility of an extension at this point and to take it one step further, Howe writes that he doesn’t expect anything to happen until after the season, “if it does happen at all”.

That means that the ball is completely in Ridley’s hands this season to prove that what happened in 2012 wasn’t a fluke and that he’s still the same player he had proven up until last season that he could be. Now all he has to do is take it and run with it.

For now he’s trying to remain positive, knowing that if he he performs well things will take care of himself.

“If the contract comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. At the end of the day, I love this team. I love my teammates. I love my coaches, and I love every opportunity they give me to go out there and shine. I think that’s what it’s really about for me, going out there and doing my job.”