Talent, poise and momentum are essential components of any championship run, but health is equally crucial. Since nobody can predict injuries, the issue of health often becomes a "we'll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-to-it type" of situation.
But for the New England Patriots, that proverbial bridge is really the only thing standing in their way of another banner, so it's worth worrying about right now.
Prior to Super Bowl XLII, Tom Brady was in a walking boot. Prior to Super Bowl XLVI, Rob Gronkowski was in a walking boot. We also saw two seasons that were derailed by substantial injuries to Brady and Wes Welker.
In each of those four seasons, the Patriots were good enough to win it all. Had the team's health been better, Brady might need both hands to wear all of his rings.
We can talk all day about the need for pass rushers or a more efficient secondary or a young burner who can make the big play, but the truth is that the Patriots need good solid health more than any of those things.
Health is the difference between having as many rings as Troy Aikman or having more rings than Joe Montana.
Next season, Wes Welker will most likely catch over 100 balls. Scooping up yards after the catch is Welker's bread and butter, which means he'll get clobbered relentlessly. You could potentially have 100 situations where something bad can happen. And while that can be said of any elite receiver in the NFL, Welker is only a few seasons removed from having his knee blown out.
Rob Gronkowski is also coming off a grim injury, and he routinely gets smashed up all over the field. Like Welker, Gronkowski enjoys accumulating yards after the catch. The difference is that Welker eventually submits to tackles, while Gronkowski attempts to fight his way out of tackles so he can keep running.
That's commendable and perilous. Gronkowski does a lot of dangerous things on the field. Last season, he flipped into the endzone and landed on his neck. I almost had a heart attack. Those types of situations define the essence of why we love him, but those are also the types of situations that end seasons prematurely.
Aaron Hernandez and Tom Brady also seem to find themselves in shark-infested waters. They're both willing to sacrifice their bodies for a victory, which is as scary as it is admirable. Whether it's his leg, his shoulder or any other body part, Patriot Nation hurts when Tom Brady hurts.
New England's entire offense is predicated on a brilliant quarterback, two athletic tight ends and a chain-mover who's built like a slab of iron. Without one of those elements, the system breaks down and we have Super Bowl XLVI all over again.
This team is too damn talented to let any injury keep us from a banner. Let's get in the mindset of solving this problem now so we're not blindsided by any potential bad luck that happens to fall on us in 2012. Let's prepare for the worst case scenario and be pleasantly surprised if everything's in tip-top shape.
NFL Network has a great series called "America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions." In the episode devoted to the 2001 Patriots season, Brady recounts the immediate events leading up to Drew Bledsoe's devastating injury. Brady talks about the instinct of a backup quarterback to button his chin straps whenever the quarterback dodges out of the pocket.
There's a lot to be learned from that piece of wisdom. Backups prepare themselves to step into the shoes of greatness and keep the team's momentum going. Brady stepped in for Bledsoe and led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory. Great teams have great depth, and great depth can defeat any bad luck that crosses the team's path.
This is where Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman and Brandon Lloyd come in. It doesn't say "backup" on their official job titles, but they need to get in the habit of buttoning their proverbial chin straps whenever Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski get throttled to the ground.
Woodhead, Edelman and Lloyd must take the next step in their respective developments in 2012. All three of these guys have a great deal of unfulfilled potential. Lloyd is an elite player in his own way, but he still has a lot to prove next season.
We can't have a situation where we say, "Gronkowski's out, what are we going to do?" We need to be able to say, "Gronkowski's out, but Woodhead's having a hell of a season and Lloyd is really emerging as an offensive powerhouse. Plus, Edelman's been a demon on special teams."
When the 2012 season begins, everyone will be healthy. That'll be a great time for Edelman, Woodhead and Lloyd to establish attainable goals for themselves.
Edelman's goal should be to consistently deliver great field position on special teams and become a solid mid-level receiver. Woodhead's goal should be to fuse together the best elements of Wes Welker's game and BenJarvus Green-Ellis' game and consistently move up on the team's offensive food chain. Lloyd's goal should be to make sure that Tom Brady is never out of options.
As the season rolls on and these players establish themselves, the Patriots will gain a special kind of confidence that fills them with the belief that they can persevere to the end with anyone who's healthy enough to play. It's that very belief which may carry a banged up Boston Bruins team to a second consecutive Stanley Cup victory.
To Edelman, Woodhead and Lloyd, I offer these words: Take it one game at a time. Establish those smaller goals and achieve them. Find a way to help the team every week. You don't have to be a Pro Bowler to be a champion. And when one of your teammates gets knocked down to the ground, button your chin straps and prepare for war.
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