Uh-oh. Is it Groundhog Day all over again for the New England Patriots?
One would certainly hope not, after they weathered in 2013 one of the most complete NFL roster injury explosions in recent memory. They not only survived last season's injuries, they thrived in that depleted environment, making it within a game of the Super Bowl with a roster very dissimilar from the one they started the season with.
"Next man up" is Cliche Town USA, but here we are again in 2014 with the phrase fitting snug like a pair of game pants right out of the dryer.
The Patriots just lost their best running back, on a team that recently found a deadly-effective offense through their run game and the space in play action that comes from it. They also lost their defensive leader and best tackler, middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, at a time when the defense was beginning to round into expectations-shape. And they lost (for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time) their veteran offensive line leader, Dan Connolly, whose consistent play and versatility was one of the greatest assets for a much improved group.
Well, next man up is right. Welcome (once again) to the NFL.
As is often the case in so-called 'next-man-up' scenarios, it doesn't usually happen when it's most convenient for you or your team. Each of the previously mentioned injuries were in-game surprises, so Next Man is thrust into a game where his skill-set might not fit what the game-plan currently in motion calls for.
In these instances as Next Man, you just have to fake-it-until-you-make-it. There isn't typically much time to draw up new plays or defenses, and you certainly don't want to scrap something that still fits the 10 other people just because it doesn't fit perfectly the one new dude.
There's definitely some sideline improv and tweaking that inevitably goes on, but there simply isn't enough time for a start-from-scratch approach when the unexpected happens in real-time, in-game NFL situations. If you're plugged in at running back, or middle linebacker, or offensive guard, the plays (or defenses) are by-and-large the ones that the team has prepared all week. It's Next Man's responsibility to do a reasonable facsimile of the person they are replacing--which really just means doing the rule or responsibility of the given play-call. Making those calls fit you and your strengths...that's something to consider during the next week of preparation.
No time for that now...
Where Marty McFly's underwear says "Calvin", mine says "Next Man." I went through this scenario several times throughout my career as an NFL linebacker and special teams player. In many regards, my value to my team was as a jack-of-all-trades for the four potential linebacker positions in a 3-4 defense. I'm comfortable enough in my own skin to say that "master of none" is part & parcel to this role, otherwise Next Men like myself wouldn't have been in that position (generally speaking). The ability to do many dissimilar roles without perceptible drop-off from the 'First Men' is really what this gig is all about.
The challenge for myself playing the role of Next Man, is that an outside linebacker position is a dramatically different job than filling in at an inside linebacker position in a 3-4. But ya have to be able to pull off all of them, or your value is decreased. Outside linebackers need to pass rush, cover up seams as droppers in the passing game, and play over big and athletic tight ends on the end of the line. Inside linebacker is more like a bar brawl in a very small bar with very big people.
One job is like a violent dance...the other is largely car-crashes. Sometimes similar, but often times very different. The challenge for a team is finding players whose makeup and skill-set is versatile enough to pull off some of both until the others are healthy.
Obviously as a Patriots fan, you can appreciate the skill-set differences between studs like Mike Vrabel & Willie McGinest, vs a different kind of stud like Tedy Bruschi. Next Men like myself have to be amorphous enough that the defense can continue to operate at status quo when you are inserted into the lineup at any number of spots.
These differing traits definitely aren't unique to the linebacker position that I'm more familiar with. These differences can be seen all across an NFL offense or defense. The job requirements of a offensive lineman are nary the same at each of the five positions along the line. It's highly likely, and not unusual, for someone to be very good at two of the five, but a bulldog in the ocean at the others. Same goes for positions in the secondary, and at wide receiver, and in the offensive backfield. It's all 'football,' but that really doesn't tell you all that you need to know.
Sometimes Next Men are bridges for several weeks. Sometime Next Men have to carry out the role for entire seasons. The rosters built to weather this brand of predictability have a nice advantage towards playing later in the year, because they don't have to take their proverbial finger out of one hole to fill another (creating new problems), they just keep pushing their team forward in the direction it was already heading.
The Patriots' particular challenges at middle linebacker, running back, and guard/center won't likely be answered for several weeks to come, as settling into those spots based on new game-planning, and additional roster movement (both in and out) will help the whole thing take shape.
Young linebacker Deontae Skinner, veteran running back Brandon Bolden, and a collection of fellas on the offensive line did an admirable job last weekend in Buffalo-- doing the Next Man name proud. Will the Patriots continue on as we saw, or will they find different configurations to address what they perceive to be unique challenges ahead? We'll just have to wait and see.
Just like the Next Men. Waiting. Waiting. And then hopefully helping their team.
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