This Sunday marks four weeks since the Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl title, an achievement that ties the NFL record shared by the Pittsburgh Steelers. This past week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, we were reminded of one of the truths of pro football – that the healthiest teams are often those with the best chances of winning the Super Bowl.
Patriots head athletic trainer Jim Whalen received a special honor from his peers in the NFL Physicians Society, who named him the league's Outstanding NFL Athletic Trainer of the Year for 2018. According to the official press announcement, the award goes annually "to an NFL athletic trainer who best reflects the virtues of a certified athletic trainer and displays the highest level of professionalism."
Even for a Super Bowl champion, New England enjoyed an uncommonly healthy season overall in 2018. Certainly, the team had its fair share of players who wound up on injured reserve and saw their seasons end there. However, two players – running back Rex Burkhead and rookie cornerback Duke Dawson – returned to action after spending at least half the regular season on IR.
Each year, NFL teams can designate two players to return from their respective injured reserve lists. The fact that Burkhead (neck and concussion issues) and Dawson (hamstring), New England's two players designated for return from the 2018 injured list, managed to make it back and contribute is notable for two reasons.
Not only were the two men available to help the team both at practice and, in Burkhead's case, in games, but also, by contrast, the Patriots tried and failed to activate their two designated players in 2017 (linebacker Shea McClellin, who also dealt with a concussion, and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, limited by a nagging knee injury).
When he came back to practice in late November, Burkhead praised the team's medical staff and strength/conditioning coaches for keeping him physically fit during his extended layoff.
"Just worked my tail off, doing whatever I could," Burkhead said at the time. "I controlled what I could control."
Dawson, meanwhile, got back on the field earlier than Burkhead, but despite being on the 53-man roster, the rookie was among the seven players deactivated for games down the stretch. That appeared to be more of a coaching decision than a health-related one, however, as the Patriots had sufficient depth at cornerback. Yet, Dawson's participation in practice helped the club prepare for its opponents each week.
"If I had to play 50 snaps, I could play 50 snaps," Dawson declared to reporters back in November. "Whatever the coaches want me to do, I'm here to do it… It's very exciting. As a competitor, you always want to go out and compete and help the team any way you can."
At any time of year, it's remarkable when a football team can field its entire roster for practices. New England has done so at times early in the year in seasons past, but what was truly exceptional was how frequently the Patriots were able to dress all 63 players (the 53-man plus the 10-man practice squad) in December and January this past campaign. Any aches and pains the players might have been dealing with were not significant enough to warrant a listing on the injury report, allowing the them and their coaching staff to devote their full attention to the game plan, their individual and collective responsibilities, and going out to practice without limitation – a decided advantage for any team in its preparations.
"Of course it does," tight end Rob Gronkowski asserted during the playoff run in January. "When you're dealing with that type of [injury] stuff with a lot of guys, you see what you can do and [have to deal with it]. When that's out of the picture, I mean, it just makes practice that much easier, that much better. Just go out there, do what we've got to do, focus on the job that you've got to do and do it at full speed, do it however you need to do during practice so you can go out and replicate on game day on Sunday."
"Absolutely, yeah," head coach Bill Belichick agreed when the topic came up earlier this calendar year. "Being able to practice, being able to train, being able to string those days and weeks together, yeah, it's what you want."
Twice this year, it looked as if rookie running back Sony Michel had suffered potentially season-ending injuries during games.
"Sony's dealing with the injury," running backs coach Ivan Fears remarked on Halloween, shortly after one of Michel's injury scares, "so, he's still keeping up on what we're doing, still in the meetings, learning how we're installing, but… he spends a lot of time with the trainers and the strength guys, just trying to get ready."
Michel wound up missing just two games after suffering a knee injury at Chicago.
"Physically, I've been doing what the training room has been giving me to do," he explained after a mid-season practice. "It's up to the training room staff and the coaches. I'm very fortunate to be given another chance to play football again. It's going to be a process. I have to work at it."
Yet, after brief spells on the sideline or missing just a couple days of practice, Michel was able to bounce back and become New England's leading tailback in 2018.
Belichick credited his club's medical and strength/conditioning staffs for keeping his players in optimal physical shape for this latest playoff run, which resulted in another Super Bowl title. Though he didn't mention them all by name, Belichick clearly was referring in his comments not only to Whalen, but also strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera, Cabrera's first-year assistant, Deron Mayo, assistant athletic trainer and director of rehabilitation Joe Van Allen, assistant trainer Daryl Nelson, assistant trainer and physical therapist Michael Akinbola, team dietitian Ted Harper, and the many doctors and medical professionals who roam the sidelines at Gillette Stadium and accompany the team on the road for games throughout the year.
"Yeah, I mean, they all work hard," added Belichick. "It's a combination of a lot of things. Training is like anything – it helps to have a good plan, it helps to follow the plan, and the players have worked extremely hard. You've got to go out there and work at it, day after day, week after week, month after month, in some cases, year after year, and that's how you improve.
"So, the players have worked really hard as a total team with a lot of consistency. I think the work that, as you mentioned, the other people in those [staffing] areas have done has been good, but it's a combination of a lot of people working together and doing a good job."
When safety Patrick Chung suffered a broken right arm during Super Bowl LIII, he was attended to immediately on the field by Whalen and the medical staff. Though he needed to be escorted to the locker room for further observation, Chung later managed to return to the sideline and watch the remainder of the game with his teammates. He underwent surgery several days later and is working with the team's staff to get back in playing shape sometime later this year.
During Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta last month, Gronkowski also suffered what he dubbed a quadriceps muscle injury in one of his legs after absorbing a hard hit from two Rams defenders. The problem later required "special treatment," according to NFL Network, but after he limped to the sideline, Gronkowski consulted briefly with the medical staff before continuing to play in the game without missing a snap.
"Yeah, it tightened up. Adrenaline was flowing throughout the game. It's the Super Bowl. I've had those quad shots about four times now. Probably won't be able to walk that good tomorrow," he acknowledged with a smile immediately afterward, "but it's all good because we're the Super Bowl champs."
And even though it's now the offseason, when most players are far away from Foxborough, the medical and training staff remains available to those players who need to utilize the facilities at Gillette Stadium for rehabilitation purposes, so they can work toward getting back on the field in 2019.