The New York Giants lost an important third-down option with pass-blocking chops and a nose for the goal line when running back Andre Brown left Thursday's preseason finale with what's being called a hairline fracture in his left leg.
How much the Giants will miss Brown's contributions will depend wholly on how much time the oft-injured back has to miss.
According to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York, Brown described his injury as a "tiny crack" that won't require surgery. He is scheduled to undergo more tests Friday to increase the knowledge base on the injury, but the current prognosis is much better than originally believed.
Keep in mind, the 26-year-old back lost the final six games of last season after fracturing the same leg. When Brown's injury was first reported, most feared the Giants could be losing one-half of their running back tandem for the majority of 2013.
However, Brown appeared optimistic that this injury isn't of the same degree as last year's. And according to the Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, Brown's goal is to remain active and return in a "couple of weeks."
“No, I would love to stay active,” Brown said when asked if landing on injured reserve with designation to return was an option. “That’s how I feel. I feel I can come back from this...in a couple weeks.”
Given his injury history with the leg, a couple of weeks certainly sounds too optimistic. Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said Brown's injury will "take a while."
Even without knowing any of the medical details, a bone fracture should be expected to take two to four weeks to heal properly. Even this liberal healing window would give Brown a chance to be back no earlier than four to six weeks.
Being without Brown for more than a month-and-a-half would be a big blow to the New York offense.
While he recovers, the Giants will lean on second-year running back David Wilson, who has impressed with the football in his hands this preseason. Over four exhibition starts, Wilson has rushed 24 times for 179 yards (7.5 yards/carry) and one touchdown. He has also caught seven passes for 16 yards.
Last season, Wilson burst onto the scene both as a kick returner and electrifying runner. He tallied 247 of his 348 rushing yards and two of his three touchdowns over the final four games of 2012. The late-season surge prompted many to believe that Wilson was ready for a breakout year in 2013.
However, the Giants will still miss what Brown brings to the table.
While not the typical size of a third-down back, the 6'0", 224-pound Brown carved out a defined role as New York's trusted option on the all-important down.
His work protecting the passer as a blocker helped him grasp the opportunity.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brown was asked to pass block on 14 of his 56 snaps this preseason. He gave up zero pressures overall, and his final grade (plus-0.9) was tops among Giants running backs.
Brown's pass-blocking prowess to start this season was simply an extension of 2012, when the previously little-used back quickly became New York's go-to pass-protector with Ahmad Bradshaw out of the lineup.
Brown's importance in pass protection is only magnified when breaking down Wilson's recent attempts in keeping Eli Manning clean.
Last season, Wilson was charged with one quarterback hit despite only playing on six pass-blocking snaps. He allowed another hit this preseason and has otherwise struggled sticking his blocks in the passing game.
Wilson's struggles, combined with the relative inexperience of the running backs further down the Giants depth chart, might force New York to bring in a third-down option such as Tim Hightower or Willis McGahee. Both veterans are accomplished pass-blockers and are available on the free-agent market.
The Giants will also have to devise a new plan for attacking the goal line and short-yardage situations.
A season ago, Brown scored a touchdown on all five of his carries from the 1-yard line. He ended the year with eight total scores, while Wilson only received a handful of red-zone carries.
Clearly, Brown was going to enter the season as New York's goal-line and short-yardage back. Now, Wilson's role will have to expand closer to what's expected of a true lead back, while Da'Rel Scott, Michael Cox and Ryan Torain will split backup carries and touches.
The Giants offense won't take a severe step backward with Brown unavailable, as Wilson is still one of the game's most exciting young backs. The passing game, led by Manning and three capable receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle, is still a formidable outfit.
However, the Giants will miss Brown's contributions when the offense gets to obvious passing situations on third down and in short-yardage situations. These are areas where Wilson and the rest of the remaining running backs in New York can't compare to Brown.
If Brown's injury proves to heal on the short end of the recovery timeline, Thursday's unfortunate break will serve as nothing more than a bump in the road. But if the prognosis comes back worse than the optimistic Brown believes, the Giants might have to scramble for help replacing him.