What's going on here?
After only four regular-season games, Gillette Stadium has turned into a 68,756-seat infirmary. The injuries have hit the New England Patriots like waves, and every time they get up, another knocks them back down.
Dan Koppen went down in Week 1. Then it was Aaron Hernandez, Albert Haynesworth, Pat Chung, Myron Pryor and Ras-I Dowling in Week 2. Then Leigh Bodden was hurt in Week 3, and Jerod Mayo and Danny Woodhead had to limp off the field this week.
My goodness. Is there a doctor in the house?
Tom Brady's scorching start to the 2011 season has seen its rival in the Patriots' blistering assault on the injury report. Everyone's going down, and it seems like no tendon, bone or muscle is safe in Foxboro.
With a crucial contest against the Jets coming up, the injury situation for the Patriots is looking dire. Bill Belichick and his coaching staff built a team that could be versatile and win in many different ways, specifically for this opponent, and instead, injuries are forcing him to rip pages from the playbook.
When Hernandez sprained his MCL, New England's vaunted two-tight end attack went out the window. We're instead seeing an offense more like 2009's, where Brady looks for two options (Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski) over and over again in big spots. The Patriots were able to run the ball against Oakland, so the offense is starting to regain another dimension, but the easiest solution would still be to get Hernandez back healthy.
The losses on defense have been more dramatic. The offense is still scoring points, but the defense at this point seems to make its third-down stops by accident.
The Patriots have been unable to generate pressure up the middle with Haynesworth out. They've been unable to play good man-to-man coverage with Bodden and Dowling missing time. Chung only missed a game, but his absence threw the secondary into chaos and forced Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett into starting roles. They're not exactly Rodney Harrison and Lawyer Milloy, and Buffalo quickly found out.
With the Patriots going down one by one, you had to figure the injury bug would soon hit a star player. It happened yesterday, when Mayo injured his MCL. He's expected to miss six to eight weeks, and he'll be the biggest loss yet. He's the defensive quarterback. Without him, it's hard to tell what, if anything, Belichick will be able to get the defense to do well.
What's the reason? The shortened preseason, which cut down on conditioning, is a possibility, but that would put more teams in New England's boat. Instead, the Patriots, who surprised with their superior conditioning in their Week 1 win in steamy Miami, have been lagging behind the rest of the league's ability to keep players on the field.
Maybe it's scouting and drafting. Draft-pick Dowling and trade-acquisition Haynesworth had generated injury buzz coming into this season, and Hernandez and Bodden missed time last year (with Bodden missing the whole season). Perhaps the Patriots need to weigh durability more into their selections and rely less on the hope that a player with an affinity for injured reserve will be able to magically make it through an entire season. Or month.
Maybe it's just all bad luck. The Green Bay Packers put 20 players on injured reserve last year. Sometimes, them's the breaks.
But the Patriots can't make excuses. That Packers team didn't, and it ended up winning a Super Bowl title. New England still has ambitions of getting to that point, and it still can. The Patriots just need to find a way to plug in reserves and keep rolling. It starts Sunday against the Jets. That's the present.
In the weeks to come, however, the Patriots have to get healthy. The players need to find their way back into uniform and onto the field, and it can't be while other players are walking—or getting carted—off.
New England has always shown an ability to adjust to injury, but the first few weeks have been a disaster, health-wise. If things (and players) don't get better, it could end up costing the Patriots a very promising season.