FOXBOROUGH — For two months, there has been a lot of hype surrounding the Patriots’ joint practices with the Saints.
It’s great for competition and evaluation! And what a fun opportunity to see two Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks on the field at the same time!
Those are still true. But Tuesday, we saw the major drawback of conducting a physical, competitive practice in August, when two key Patriots went down within minutes of each other.
The stomach of every Patriots fan churned when Julian Edelman flipped off his helmet in disgust, got his left foot examined by a trainer, and gingerly walked to the locker room under his own power. Minutes later, defensive leader Rob Ninkovich slinked off to the locker room with a triceps injury, according to ESPN Boston.
The initial word on Edelman was positive. A league source told the Globe’s Jim McBride that Edelman’s injury was not serious and he should be back on the field relatively soon. Edelman is recovering from a broken bone in his left foot, a bone he originally broke in 2012 and broke again last November.
Edelman was able to return to the field for the playoffs, but required a second surgery in early May to insert a screw in his foot.
Had Edelman re-broken his foot Tuesday, on just his third day back in uniform, he may have been lost for the 2016 season. Instead Edelman avoided disaster and should be back on the practice field relatively soon.
Ninkovich, meanwhile, may have dodged a bullet as well. The NFL Network reported that an MRI determined that Ninkovich tore his triceps muscle, but not the tendon.
According to an NFL medical source, a torn triceps muscle usually recovers in a matter of weeks, while a torn triceps tendon always results in surgery and up to six months of recovery. Ninkovich should be able to avoid surgery, and if his rehab goes well, hopes to be back on the field by October.
His ironman streak of 116 consecutive games played will likely come to an end, but if all goes well, the Patriots could get their defensive leader back right around the same time Tom Brady comes back in Week 5.
More importantly, they wouldn’t have to use their one “Injured Reserve – Designated to Return” spots on Ninkovich and could save it for someone else.
The injuries to Edelman and Ninkovich will generate second-guessing of Bill Belichick’s methods.
Was Edelman rushed back to the field too soon? Why are important veterans such as Edelman and Ninkovich going all out in a training-camp practice when we already know what they can do on the field, and maintaining their health for the regular season is the No. 1 priority?
But you can’t put these guys in bubblewrap for the entire preseason then roll them out there for Week 1 and expect them to be ready to go. They need to get into shape, and in Edelman’s case, he needs to get on the same page with Jimmy Garoppolo.
Unfortunately, injuries happen.
There’s no question that Belichick wouldn’t put Edelman back on the field unless he was cleared by the team doctors. The team is being extra cautious with players like Dion Lewis this camp — he has not appeared at one practice yet, but a league source said the Patriots hope to have Lewis ready for Week 1 — and if they’re being cautious with Lewis, they’re also doing right by Edelman, either the second- or third-most important player on the team behind Tom Brady.
The medical source said that if Edelman’s bone heals properly, it should be stronger than before. And since Edelman’s injury appears to be minor, he likely aggravated some of the scar tissue still remaining from his second surgery three months ago. If there were an issue with the bone, there wouldn’t be hope that he would return to practice soon.
As for Ninkovich, what can you do? Belichick can’t hold everyone out of camp. Even 11-year veterans like Ninkovich need the practice reps before the season starts, especially since the Patriots aren’t allowed to hold full-contact practices for the entire spring and part of training camp. These joint practices with the Saints, and next week’s practices with the Bears, are the best opportunities for guys like Ninkovich to get into game shape and practice their moves before the action goes live in Week 1.
The news of Ninkovich’s injury spread quickly. Saints safety Roman Harper, who came into the league with Ninkovich in 2006 when both were with the Saints, expressed concern for his friend and went to check on him after practice.
“I hate that injuries occur in this game, but that’s just part of it,” Harper said. “I don’t think anybody hurt anybody because of hitting or anything. It’s a crazy game, that’s what happens.”
The Patriots will get by without Ninkovich. They’ve got Shea McClellin, Chris Long, and Trey Flowers ready to step in and contribute.
His injury, and the one suffered by Edelman on Tuesday, are simply a product of the risk these athletes take when they walk onto the football field every day.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.