Are Patriots Too Dependent on Players Returning From Major Injuries?

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A frustrating loss in Miami — another frustrating loss in Miami, actually, which is something I should probably keep in mind the next time I smugly project a Patriots rout there — does little to make me re-calibrate my high yet reasonable expectations for Bill Belichick’s football team.

You know what it does do? It makes the six days in between games like, oh, six weeks. or one bad Clay Buchholz start. The wait for vindication, to finally get a glimpse of the presumably loaded 2014 edition of the Patriots, feels like forever.

And during that interim between Sundays, when there are just a couple of NFL games and thus the highlights (or lowlights) and sizzling-hot half-formed opinions are harder to escape than Cameron Wake, it’s very easy to exaggerate specific mistakes and poor performances into POTENTIALLY FATAL FLAWS THAT, I’M JUST SAYING, COULD DERAIL THIS PATRIOTS BANDWAGON BEFORE IT EVER GETS ANYWAY NEAR ARIZONA!

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(I wrote that with Gary Tanguay’s voice in mind. Did you hear Gary Tanguay’s voice there? I think you did. I apologize for doing that to you without warning. Never again.)

Advice for enduring the rest of the week? Well, obviously, avoid the concerned — they are always concerned — wails about the falling skies and collapsing pockets, and try to maintain perspective. When the regular season is nearing its end, the Patriots, barring catastrophe — collapsing skies and falling pockets! — will be fighting for a bye, and the Dolphins will be fighting for the playoffs, and this loss will feel like it happened in a different season.

The first scenes of this season’s story aren’t about to give away the ending. I will acknowledge, however, that the loss may have supplied some harbingers, or at least a tempering of certain short-term expectations.

I’m confident that Tom Brady isn’t going to throw for 62 or fewer yards again in a half for the rest of his career. Josh McDaniels won’t — hopefully won’t — ignore Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, a dynamic 1-2 punch, to the point that they combine for just 15 carries in a close game. The line — both lines — will improve with reps and continuity, if only because they cannot play much worse.

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What Sunday’s loss made me wonder about is … well, it’s right there in the spoiler of a headline, I suppose. Are we expecting a return to previous form too soon from certain essential players returning from injury?

After what I saw Sunday from Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork, I think we are, to varying degrees anyway.

When a player is returning from injury, or even when he’s gradually aging, we tend to still view him as his peak-of-career, best-of-times self.

Hell, such a scenario just occurred with Logan Mankins, who upon departure was heralded as a five-time All-Pro and a franchise cornerstone — which he was — rather than a highly-compensated 32-year-old guard who had a poor season in 2013.

As fans, we see a familiar name and number and immediately recognize the player in the jersey for all that he has done, for what he has been. Belichick recognizes what he is.

So what are Gronk, Mayo, and Wilfork right now? Collectively, as the Dolphins reminded us with blunt force, they’re works in progress. Individually, they’re at different stages in their quest to return to peak form.

Let’s start with Gronk. As conscious as we were of his not-quite-there-yet status — and the we here includes the Patriots — it proved irresistible to try to make him the focal point of the offense despite his limited practice time. Brady forced the ball his way (11 targets, mostly in the first half) and he caught four, including one for a touchdown.

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His speed has not come back yet — it’s disconcerting to see him plodding like this — and he’s still wearing that sleeve on his arm for some reason, and yet at, what, 70 percent of his usual self, he’s still a weapon to be reckoned with. He’s not back in full force, but he is back, and it’s a tribute to his ridiculous talent that a still-recovering Gronk is a weapon.

Mayo, whose ’13 season ended after six games, looked like his old ballcarrier-hoarding self on the stat sheet, compiling a team-high 12 tackles, including 10 solo. He also had a sack on a delayed blitz. But Mayo typically accumulated his tackles down field rather than plugging lanes and preventing Knowshon Moreno (134 yards) and Lamar Miller (59 on just 11 carries) from getting through the line and into open field. The Dolphins gained yardage on the ground at will, gaining 191 rushing yards at a 5.0 per carry clip.

Mayo’s performance reminded me a lot of late-career Tedy Bruschi — the numbers were there, but the momentum-shifting plays were not. I anticipate that it was just rust and Mayo will shake the it off soon — hopefully by 1 p.m. Sunday, when Adrian Peterson looms in the Minnesota backfield.

The real issue with the running game was not so much Mayo as it was the cast of pushed-around big fellas in front of him. The line didn’t give the linebackers much space to make plays.

The chief culprit was Wilfork, the 32-year-old bulkhead/defensive tackle whose ’13 season ended after four games because of a torn Achilles’ tendon. Wilfork was relentlessly manhandled by the Dolphins, and his performance was the most alarming among the Returning From Devastating Injury brigade for a couple of reasons.

He’s 32. His position demands that he takes an inhumane pounding, which will eventual take a toll. He’s a large man trying to thrive again with a reattached Achilles’, no sure task. And this is the most — ugh — concerning part: he was not playing well when he got hurt last year. It’s possible he was slipping before he fell, you know?

For his part, Wilfork has vowed and vowed again in the aftermath of the Dolphins loss that the defense will be a force, and they will get better this week. While some among us find it irresistible to magnify all that went wrong in Week 1 and extrapolate it over the remaining 15 games, Wilfork is probably right.

The defense will be one to be reckoned with. And it will get better. Here’s hoping we can say the same for him too.

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