FOXBOROUGH — Injuries occur in the NFL every week, on every team. Sometimes the players are considered irreplaceable, so important to the success of their team, even in the ultimate team sport, that the group is sent reeling, for a couple of games or the remainder of the season.
In the span of 14 days, the Patriots lost perhaps their two most important defensive players to season-ending injuries. First, tackle Vince Wilfork tore an Achilles’, and two weeks later linebacker Jerod Mayo tore a pectoral muscle.
No sooner did the questions of how the Patriots would replace Wilfork die down did they begin anew on how Mayo, who went long stretches without coming off the field for even a snap, would be replaced.
The answer isn’t easy, or easy to come by. When discussing Mayo, coach Bill Belichick, seeming stung by the most recent loss, would only say that players go down and must be replaced.
That’s why you have players on your roster, Belichick said. That’s why you try to build depth.
Next man up, as they say at Gillette Stadium.
The Belichick Patriots showed long ago that they weren’t going to let one injury lead to the team unraveling, and indeed discovered a legendary player because of an injury.
More than a decade later, the tale of how Tom Brady came to supplant Drew Bledsoe reads like a strange, twisted fairy tale: The star quarterback is hit so hard and so violently that he not only can’t play for weeks, he is fortunate to play again. As he recovers, a thin, slow-footed, overlooked but uber-confident youngster steps into the job.
Even when the star is healthy he finds himself behind the youngster, who then leads the team to the ultimate victory, no longer overlooked.
Brady, on so many levels, is an exceptional case. But the years since have shown that the Patriots, perhaps more than other NFL franchises, are well-equipped to forge ahead even when dealing with injuries that appear crushing.
This year, that’s playing without Wilfork and Mayo. Without Wilfork, the Patriots turned to rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones, who have done well enough in their first two tests.
How things go without Mayo remains to be seen, starting with Sunday’s game against the rival Jets. The Patriots’ leading tackler for five straight years, a team captain like Wilfork and a voracious film studier, Mayo hasn’t often made game-changing plays, but he’s been remarkably consistent for half a decade.
If history is an indicator, however, the Patriots will find a way to make things work.
Brady replacing Bledsoe is to football as the story of Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp is to baseball. A few short months after taking over for Bledsoe, Brady led the Patriots to a win in Super Bowl XXXVI, and remarkably won his first 10 playoff games.
The kid from the University of Michigan, who according to franchise lore told team owner Robert Kraft, pizza box in hand, that drafting him was the best decision the Patriots ever made, started 128 straight games (including playoffs) after Bledsoe’s injury.
Until, that is, his own injury.
Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard — who has his own place in Patriots’ history, given his propensity for causing or being in close vicinity when injuries to no fewer than four key players occurred — dived at Brady’s left knee in the 2008 season opener, ending the quarterback’s season because of torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.
Which led to Matt Cassel, another unheralded quarterback, taking over under center.
Cassel wasn’t quite Brady redux, as the Patriots missed the playoffs despite winning 11 games. But he did well, completing more than 63 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 2 to 1.
The 2008 season also included season-ending injuries to lead running back Laurence Maroney (third game), top safety Rodney Harrison (sixth game), and top pass rusher Adalius Thomas (ninth game).
A career backup at Southern California, Cassel impressed enough in his 15 starts that the Chiefs, whose player (Pollard) was instrumental in him getting those starts, gave up a second-round pick to acquire him, and signed him to a six-year, $62.7 million contract in 2009.
In 2004, the Patriots endured injuries to two key defensive players. Coming off an All-Pro performance the year before, cornerback Ty Law started the first seven games before suffering a foot injury, a couple of weeks after the man who started opposite him, Tyrone Poole, also was lost to injury.
Over the final nine weeks of the regular season, the divisional round of the playoffs against Indianapolis, the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh, and the Super Bowl against Philadelphia, New England was forced to use a mix of cornerbacks, from second-year Asante Samuel to undrafted rookie Randall Gay to journeyman Earthwind Moreland, to even receiver Troy Brown, who was asked to play some defense when depth was severely tested.
But under the deft hand of secondary coach Eric Mangini, the patchwork group held its own as the Patriots won their third Super Bowl.
And those are just some of the key losses to injury.
In 2003, after signing free agent linebacker Rosevelt Colvin to a six-year, $25.8 million contract, the Patriots saw him play just two games before suffering a broken and dislocated hip that impacted the rest of his career.
In 2005, left tackle Matt Light and Harrison were injured in the same game, against the Steelers Sept. 25. Rookie Nick Kaczur filled in for Light, but it took a carousel of players — Artrell Hawkins, James Sanders, Michael Stone, Guss Scott, and Arturo Freeman — to fill Harrison’s shoes.
Losses along the offensive line never have been that crushing, thanks in part to position coach Dante Scarnecchia. In 2011, center Dan Koppen was hurt in Week 3, and Dan Connolly played capably in his stead, just as he’d done the season before at left guard and right guard, when Logan Mankins sat out nearly half the season in a contract dispute and then Stephen Neal was hurt.
Replacing cornerback Leigh Bodden in 2010 didn’t go as well, and the Patriots had their worst pass defense under Belichick, allowing opponents to convert 47 percent of third-down chances and complete 63.5 percent of their passes overall.
Which brings us to the present, with the Patriots arriving at MetLife Stadium on Sunday sans Wilfork and Mayo, the defense playing without both for the first time since Mayo was drafted in 2008.
It’s unlikely we’ll be witness to the birth of a legend, but the Patriots don’t necessarily need that. They need the next man up, the next men up, to show that the team won’t become unraveled by misfortune.