Well, one week in and the Patriots find themselves with a bit of an injury problem. What a difference compared to last year, when Coach Bill Belichick uncharacteristically lauded his training staff for their efforts to keep his team healthy and on the field. In fact, last year I wrote about the significant decrease in injuries last year and compiled this table listing number of weeks missed with reported injuries.
I hypothesized (because I’m a science nerd) how the Patriots may have actively decreased injuries so dramatically – improved training room work (Patriots’ training staff won Staff of the Year honors from the Ed Block Courage Award last season), better prevention, but at the end of the day maybe Devin McCourty was right. Tom E. Curran asked McCourty what was the biggest difference maker in the team’s low injury numbers. His answer? Luck.
It seems like that good luck may be running out for the Patriots. As Mike Reiss pointed out this morning in his Quick-hit notes,
When the Patriots placed wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell on injured reserve Thursday, it was the fifth player to land on IR this year after having practiced in training camp. In 2016, the Patriots placed four players on IR all season.
While the increase in injury numbers is certainly a cause to take pause, it is not time to panic. We’re one week into the season, let’s see how it unfolds.
Do the Patriots have an ACL issue?
Derek Rivers, Julian Edelman, and Cyrus Jones all suffered ACL tears in the pre-season. Sometimes when we see clusters of injuries like this we look to the team to see if they’re doing something differently. Overall, ACL tears were on the high end of average for the NFL this preseason. Three on one team is higher than typical (avg is 1-1.5) but not necessarily or even likely because the Patriots are doing something wrong. The numbers are so low that it’s hard to know for sure, but given the attention to detail we’ve seen with this team (see Do Your Job Part II), I’d bet some change it’s something they’re looking at.
Note: I suspect the reason that ACL tears are so common in the NFL is that athletes are getting stronger and cutting harder and ACLs are staying the same size. Lots of stress on a little ligament means more non-contact ligament tears.
Another receiver down
Malcolm Mitchell was placed on IR on Thursday for what appeared to be a re-aggravation of a chronic knee injury. In college, Mitchell had an ACL tear in college and underwent ACL reconstruction. A year later he had a second arthroscopic procedure to “repair cartilage” in the same knee. Meniscus tears are common with ACL injuries so the cartilage repaired could have been the meniscus. The other possibility is that Mitchell has articular cartilage problems in that knee (focal arthritis). In any case, a few weeks ago his knee twisted slightly in a pre-season game and since then he was seen coming up lame after almost every play. He will will likely have an MRI (probably has already) and consult with physicians to determine the next course of treatment. I did not see anything worrisome for a new ACL tear on the suspected injury video so I think that this is most likely an acute on chronic cartilage issue. It seems that conservative treatments have not allowed him to reliably be on the field so either a prolonged period of rest (with steroid inj, PRP, etc) or knee surgery are not out of the question.
More pressure on less durable players
I was NOT happy with how much Josh McDaniels and the Pats used WR Danny Amendola in week 1. In fact, I was watching the game next to Albert Breer and told him that, if they keep using Danny across the middle like that in addition to returning kicks, he wasn’t going to make it through this game let alone deep into the season. The loss of Julian Edelman in the pre-season combined with the slow start of Rob Gronkowski (I’ll discuss this more in a sec) left Tom Brady looking for a security blanket. Amendola is as clutch as they come, and you can tell that Brady has immense trust in his receiver. Unfortunately, Amendola took what looked like a knee to the head during a punt return and left in the 4th quarter with a head injury. He is currently in the concussion protocol. The team has GOT to find a way to preserve Amendola. He will be a key to the post season, that is if you still believe they’ll make it there. (wink)
After being passed over by (reportedly) multiple teams for chronic injuries, impactful LB Dont’a Hightower is back in a Patriots uniform. He’s not back in the ILB position, however. Hightower has found himself practicing with the defensive ends and in week one seemed to be filling Rob Ninkovich’s very large cleats in the DE spot. Hightower is not a 16-game regular season player, but he is a team leader. His chronic injuries have forced him to miss 3-4 games/season on average. Hightower was injured in week one. Here is my analysis from minutes after the injury.
Dont’a Hightower is clearly being asked to play a new role on the Patriots’ relatively shaky front 7. The Pats need to proceed with caution – it seems unreasonable that they will be able to lean as heavily on the ILB turned DE’s hobbled shoulders this season.
Which brings me to Gronk
Chill the heck out, guys.
Rob Gronkowski has had 3 major spine surgeries. He is patently slow to start every season. There’s no question that he’s older than he was last year (I mean, COME ON with that description). I get why everyone is so concerned, but Rob Gronkowski can still deliver a devastating block and (almost?) go up for a crazy catch in the end zone. Week 1 was UTTER GARBAGE. It is impossible to make a call on Gronk’s recovery under those circumstances.
After a 3rd spine surgery I would not expect Gronk to be 100% from the start. He’s working with Alex Guerrero and reportedly looks a little slimmer to some – that’s a good thing. Gronk is huge enough. In fact, that’s part of his problem. Improvement in flexibility of his hip flexors, spine muscles (and scar tissue from the surgery) as well as hamstrings and other muscles can do nothing but help to take some stress off of what is likely an arthritic/chronically injured spine.
I think we should give Gronk a few more weeks. As the throws get a little bit less rushed and a little bit more accurate (unless you’re all ready to have the same out-to-pasture discussions about Brady?) we’ll get a better idea of what Gronk has left in the tank. I think you’ll be happily surprised.
Let’s hope I have less to write about in week 2…