FOXBOROUGH – It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to suggest the Patriots’ offense fell into disarray the moment do-everything tight end Aaron Hernandez was knocked from an eventual, maddening 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals with a right ankle injury.
After all, Hernandez’s injury, which looked immediately serious and familiar enough that one was quickly tempted to scan the Cardinals roster for nemesis Bernard Pollard’s name, occurred on the Patriots’ second possession and third play from scrimmage, just 6 minutes and 23 seconds into the game.
Even by that still-early point, the Patriots, who dropped an effortless 34 points on the Tennessee Titans a week ago, had already dropped a hint that it may be a jarringly disjointed performance by Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack. On the very first play, Brady’s pass intended for Hernandez was tipped by Arizona defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and picked off by Patrick Peterson at the New England 36-yard-line. It’s not a safety on the first possession of the Super Bowl, but it was pretty ugly nonetheless.
Losing the essential Hernandez, who had by some accounts emerged as Brady’s top target in camp and is on a very short list of the most versatile offensive players in the NFL, had a significant impact on how the remaining 53:37 played out, though an advanced degree in football calculus might be required to gauge precisely how much his departure truly affected the game plan. Only Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels know the extent to which their plans were foiled or altered by his injury, and Belichick wasn’t in the mood to elaborate – “I don’t know,’’ he said when asked that precise question. But Wes Welker, who understands the nuances of the game plan even as he’s apparently a diminishing part of it, offered a candid assessment.
"Yeah, absolutely [Hernandez’s injury affected the game plan],’’ said Welker, who had five receptions for 95 yards while surpassing halftime honoree and Patriots Hall of Fame inductee Troy Brown as the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions. “Aaron's in there almost every play. It changes quite a bit. You've got to go to a different attack. We didn't play the way we need to or execute the way we need to. It wasn't enough."
Hernandez’s injury occurred when teammate Julian Edelman, running behind Hernandez on a bubble screen along the left sideline, was tackled and rolled up the back of his teammate’s legs. Hernandez was in obvious pain, and the television replay revealed it to be reminiscent of the injury Rob Gronkowski suffered when the Ravens’ Pollard hauled him down in the AFC Championship Game. Ankles aren’t built to bend in the direction his did.
My apologies for dwelling on it, but it’s difficult to avoid acknowledging that it wasn’t the only infamous Patriots injury that flashed to mind -- watching Hernandez slowly descend down the stairs to the x-ray room, limping and flanked by training staff personnel attempting to bear his weight for him, the scene was all too familiar to the one that unfolded in the agonizing seconds after Pollard blew out Brady’s knee in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season. You wondered when – or whether -- you’d see him emerge again.
It was just a few ticks of the play clock beyond that when the press box PA announcer confirmed the obvious, announcing that Hernandez had an ankle injury, punctuating it by adding that his return was questionable. He meant for the game. He could have meant for … well, for who knows how long? Perhaps until the Foxborough weather is much more frigid.
Maybe there is reason for optimism regarding Hernandez’s status -- he was seen in the locker room afterward leaning on crutches with his leg in a boot, and there were reports Sunday night that it was a sprain rather than a break. But until No. 81 – and we don’t mean Stephen Starring -- is back that huddle, the question about his status will linger. And given some unusual happenings with the offense not only for all of the three plays he was on the field, but for the 71 plays they ran from scrimmage after his day ended, it’s fair to presume it won’t be the only question that follows them at least until they win in convincing fashion again.
Josh McDaniels’s bona fides as an offensive coordinator should not require detailed explanation around here; the 589 points (36.8 per game) the team scored under his guidance in 2007, as well as its relative success with untested Matt Cassel at quarterback a year later, should buy him a lot of leeway even if he is the person who once spent a first-round pick on Tim Tebow. This offense is going to keep the numbers on the scoreboard changing rapidly more Sundays (and Mondays, and even Thanksgiving Thursday) than not.
Still … man, the approach Sunday was puzzling, wasn’t it? So much of it made so little sense. Even with the knowledge that the play calling would have been different had Hernandez been out there, some of the personnel choices and plans of attack were so unorthodox that it seemed like they were expecting bonus points for degree of difficulty.
There was too much Danny Woodhead (eight carries, 18 yards, one reception, 12 yards) and not enough Rob Gronkowski (six catches, 75 yards, 1 touchdown, and a holding call on, coincidentally, what would have been a go-ahead Woodhead TD run with 58 second left). Gronk was targeted just twice in the first half, and considering he’s one of the few players in the league who is open when he’s covered, that’s inexcusable. Brandon Lloyd was targeted 13 times, catching 8 balls but also reading things differently than the quarterback on a couple of pivotal plays, including an incompletion with 4:08 left in the third quarter when he broke outside while Brady threw a strike that would have gone for a sure touchdown had Lloyd stayed the course.
More baffling was the decision to start Edelman over Welker. While they have some similar attributes as quick, jittery slot receivers, there is absolutely no way the former should be starting over the latter. Last week I bought the suggestion that Welker’s diminished role was related to particular matchups with the Titans. But two weeks in a row? Sunday he played fewer snaps than Edelman, who has 49 catches in his career, or 73 fewer than Welker had just last season. It’s inexplicable and inexcusable.
After Hernandez got hurt, the Patriots seemed more interested in getting Edelman and Woodhead involved than they did Welker and Gronkowski. Perhaps I’m missing something – again, that football calculus – but if this happens again, I may start wondering whether the phrase “offensive scheme’’ applies not to their game plan, but how they are treating Welker.
When asked by the Globe's Greg Bedard whether he was “on board’’ with Edelman playing in front of Welker, Brady looked briefly surprised, then offered a diplomatic answer.
“There are plays that Julian is in for,’’ said Brady, who did not extend his streak of games with a TD pass to 34 until the fourth quarter. “There are a lot of plays Wes is in there for. I like both those guys and they both work really hard. That’s always coach’s decision. Who’s out there, that’s not really my decision.’’
But Brady also offered this on Welker: “He’s a phenomenal player and when he makes plays it really sparks our whole offense. He made a bunch of them today. That’s what we need. We just have to do a little bit more to get the ball in the end zone.”
That might be tougher to do in Hernandez’s absence. Getting the ball to the best players next Sunday against the Ravens would be a decent start. And at least they may not have to deal with Pollard's Patriots-harming karma -- he got hurt Sunday too.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.