boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
MIDWEEK REPORT

Getting to be a real pain

Koppen, Gay latest to be placed on IR

The frustrating part is, there's no conclusive answer.

You can theorize about a number of things, but you'd be taking a stab in the dark.

You can blame the rash of Patriots injuries on not enough stretching, or too many regulars playing special teams. You can blame it on colder weather in the Northeast tightening muscles and joints. You can blame it on the strength and conditioning staff, the medical staff, the aggressive way the Patriots play. You can blame it on the extra playoff games they have played the past four years.

Take your best shot.

As bad as the injury situation has been, it got even worse yesterday when the Patriots put starting center Dan Koppen and defensive back Randall Gay on injured reserve, meaning they'll miss the rest of the season. According to reports, Koppen separated his shoulder against Miami Sunday. The Gay news was surprising in that he had returned from an ankle injury to start against Indianapolis two weeks ago and played sparingly in a reserve role against Miami. He's the sixth defensive back on the team to go on injured reserve this season.

The Patriots replaced the latest two casualties with defensive back Artrell Hawkins, an eight-year veteran, and offensive lineman Gene Mruczkowski, who has been on and off the New England roster.

Team sources indicate there's just as much bewilderment internally about so many Patriots getting hurt. These are smart people, some of the best in their field. If there was a trend or a pattern, they would see it. It will be interesting to see after the season whether anyone will be made the scapegoat should the Patriots not overcome the injuries.

For now, however, it's considered just rotten luck.

One Patriots official threw up his hands and said, ''I wish I knew. We have an excellent medical staff, training staff, conditioning and strength staff. You just can't say, 'OK, here is where we're breaking down, so let's fix it.' I know we look at these things very seriously, but there's no answer."

Former Patriots strength coach Johnny Parker always put the blame squarely on his own shoulders. He would take responsibility, rightly or wrongly, if there were a lot of injuries.

Coach Bill Belichick did get some good news this past weekend when he was able to get Richard Seymour (knee) back in the lineup. The bad news was that he lost Koppen and Corey Dillon (right calf), again.

''Well, you always like to have everybody out there every week," said Belichick, ever vague about injuries, at his Monday news conference. ''You'd like to have all of your players healthy every week. That's always the optimum situation.

''When it's not that way, you deal with whatever it is. That was the case [in Miami]. We had a few players that didn't play in the game that played against Indianapolis. Defensively, it was a little bit of a different story over the last couple of weeks.

''We just deal with it on a week-to-week basis, and make the decisions based on (a) player availability and (b) game plan, as we go through each single game. I don't think there's any real formula for how it's going to be this week or how it's going to be next week. It all depends on (a), what we're dealing with, but also, as importantly, what challenges we face from our opponents."

Dillon appears to be the most baffled. He went down early in Sunday's game with a calf injury -- on the opposite leg from the ankle injury he'd been nursing.

''I wish I could figure out why this is happening," he said. ''I went to make a cut, and . . .

''Just a lot of stuff going wrong. I can't explain it."

It's not a matter of age. Dillon is 31, certainly up there for a running back, and Chad Scott (31), Duane Starks (31), and Tyrone Poole (33) are gone for the year. But players such as Gay (23), Guss Scott (23), and James Sanders (21) are also going down.

''With younger guys, it's adapting to the NFL," said Tampa Bay assistant strength and conditioning coach Mike Morris. ''The speed and violence of the game is taken up a notch, and in the process of getting their bodies geared for that, they have their share of injuries."

Last season the Patriots used 66 players all season. Only 24 of them played in all 19 games. This year, they already have used 63 players, only 24 of whom have played in all nine games.

The Patriots seem very cautious about rushing players back, perhaps overly cautious. Seymour, who hurt himself playing fullback, missed six games with an MCL sprain, similar to the injury that kept him out of three games at the end of last season.

Gay sprained an ankle in Week 2 vs. Carolina after tangling with receiver Steve Smith. The recovery time was estimated at 6-8 weeks but he tried to come back sooner. He played Oct. 16 vs. Denver, and after a bye week, he missed the Buffalo game. He tried to come back against Indianapolis and Miami, but now he's gone for the season.

It's also costly to keep bringing in new players. The Patriots' salary cap is practically exhausted for the season; they were down to their last $450,000 as of Friday, and are likely to do some salary maneuverings to accommodate Hawkins and Mruczkowski.

Maybe there's a price to be paid for being so successful and playing all those playoff games. Legendary coach Bill Walsh thinks so.

''There's no question that all of the extra games you play when you're winning a Super Bowl takes its toll," Walsh said. ''When you're winning them, obviously, you're not dealing with that quite as much, but I always felt the year after we won a Super Bowl, we'd be looking at more injuries.

''All kinds of things catch up to you. And nowadays with the cap, you suffer an injury during the year and you can't always find an adequate replacement for that player, so your depth starts to go. New England just may be getting their share of injuries now after their great run."

The Patriots have played 82 games since 2001, more than any other team in the NFL.

Morris said his staff dealt with more injuries after the Bucs won the Super Bowl.

''There's just so much a body can take," he said. ''These guys are so big and so fast. The game is so fast and violent. These guys' bodies become missiles out there.

''You can get them as strong and prepared as you want. You can monitor their practice schedules and not overload them, but once the game starts, you cross your fingers and you hope you can get them through 16 games. And if you're fortunate enough to win three postseason games, well, you also have to consider that the intensity of a playoff game is even greater than a regular-season game. So there's even more stress placed on the body."

There are other factors, such as how often a team hits in practice. Too much? Too little? Most teams hit maybe once a week, twice if they're being punished.

''I know that in the second half of the year, we always reduced our hitting to once a week," said Walsh. ''I always thought it was important to keep the spring in the players' legs."

That was once considered the softer West Coast approach, but it seems to be standard now.

Walsh also wondered about the strength programs, whether players lift too many weights.

''I could never correlate too much lifting with injuries, but certainly muscle fatigue has to be an issue, especially with back injuries," Walsh said. ''There just seems to be an overexertion in the weight room at times.

''You also see a lot of high ankle sprains now that seem to take a long time to recover from. In the old days, we called them shin splints and the player would put some liniment on it and get back out there."

The Patriots are surviving, for now. They are 5-4, in first place in the AFC East, though they are beating subpar teams. If they survive this rash of injuries, it might be their biggest accomplishment yet.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives