FOXBOROUGH — It was just a preseason game against the Panthers, but Kyle Van Noy was nervous on Thursday night.
It had nothing to do with the stakes of the game, of course. Early in the first quarter, Van Noy sacked Cam Newton, but appeared to injure his knee on the play. Van Noy tried to jog off the field but couldn’t make it and sat down on the turf. After finally hobbling off, he went into the blue medical tent to get checked out by Patriots doctors.
Thankfully, Van Noy emerged from the tent, ran a few sprints in front of the doctors and returned to the game.
But the Patriots almost lost their starting linebacker, a key member of a Super Bowl-winning defense, before the 2019 season even began. And it would have happened in a completely meaningless preseason game.
“Of course I was nervous,” Van Noy said after the game. “Of course it would be a bummer. It would be a bummer to get injured at any point. That’s the nature of our game. It happens, and you just want try your best to stay away from it.”
The Patriots beat the Panthers on Thursday, 10-3, but when the regular season begins in 2½ weeks, no one will remember the score. The only aspect that mattered is the fact that the injury bug hit the Patriots hard, potentially throwing a wrench into the 2019 season before it even begins.
The most devastating injury of the night came to special teams ace Brandon King, who was carted off the field near the end of the second quarter with a significant leg injury. His teammates gathered around to wish him well and see him off, possibly for the last time this season.
King, entering his fifth season with the Patriots, just signed a two-year extension this offseason. He earned a pay raise from $925,000 to $1.7 million and was going to be a leader of the Patriots’ special teams. And now he is potentially gone for the season, before it even begins.
If the Patriots are lucky, King’s injury was the only serious one. If they aren’t so lucky, they may have lost several key contributors for at least some amount of time.
Van Noy tweaked his knee. Veteran tight end Ben Watson suffered a potential concussion. Rookie running back Damien Harris limped off in the second quarter and didn’t return for the second half. Special teams ace Nate Ebner went into the medical tent for a spell. Rookie receiver Gunner Olszewski was shaken up in the fourth quarter. And tight end Lance Kendricks went to the locker room maybe 15 minutes after taking a shot over the middle.
The extent of the Patriots’ injuries were not immediately known after the game.
But it all seems so . . . pointless. The injuries once again call into question why starters need to be playing at all in the preseason.
The Panthers weren’t spared, either. Starting quarterback Cam Newton, playing for the first time all training camp as he returns from offseason shoulder surgery, went to the locker room after two series with an apparent left ankle injury suffered on a sack by Danny Shelton. Newton was in a walking boot after the game.
Much like nothing good happens after midnight, nothing good happens in the preseason — only injuries and ineffectiveness.
The third preseason game is supposed to be the big tune-up, the dry run for the regular season. Starters are supposed to play deep into the second quarter and even into the third.
That’s how it used to be in the old NFL, at least.
But today’s NFL is catching on to the pointlessness charade of the four-game preseason schedule.
The Colts plan to sit most of their starters for Saturday’s third preseason game. Same with the Rams, who didn’t play their starters in any of their four preseason games last year, either. It didn’t stop the Rams from going to the Super Bowl.
“Not to say there’s not an appreciation for what the preseason entails and playing real football,” Rams coach Sean McVay said earlier this week. “But when you look at some of the continuity now that we have on both sides of the ball coming back, and you say, ‘If something were to happen, is it really worth that risk in our mind?’ We just felt like that answer is no.”
The Patriots aren’t being quite that cautious this preseason, but Bill Belichick has noticeably dialed it back for many of his veterans. Tom Brady didn’t play in the first two preseason games, then lasted just three series on Thursday before Belichick smartly pulled him. That’s probably the first and only preseason action Brady will get.
But Belichick still gave his starters plenty of reps on Thursday night, and it led to a few dings.
“We’ve got to do what’s best for the team — get guys ready to play,” Belichick said.
The biggest injury may be to Harris, the rookie from Alabama. He looked great last week against Tennessee, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and catching all four targets. The Patriots drafted Harris in the third round for a reason, and he’s going to be a significant contributor to the Patriots’ offense, especially as a between-the-tackles runner. But those plans may have been altered by Harris’s unknown injury, which prevented him from joining his team on the sideline in the second half.
Harris wasn’t the only contributor to come up limping. Watson took a vicious shot from Panthers safety Eric Reid after the whistle — Watson was already down and Reid threw himself into Watson’s head — and Watson didn’t return to the sideline in the second half. The Patriots don’t have to announce any injuries in the preseason, but it sure looked as if Watson got checked out for a concussion. He’ll be out for the first four games with a suspension, anyway, but no one wants to see him miss practice time before then.
Ebner also briefly left with an injury. Thankfully he returned, because the Patriots got thinner on special teams Thursday. And the Patriots, already thin at tight end following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, are even more so after losing Matt LaCosse to an ankle injury two weeks ago and Kendricks leaving Thursday’s game.
When asked about the spate of injuries, Brady was quick to note that, “it happens in the regular season, too. This is a contact sport and a physical sport. Injuries are certainly a part of the game.”
He’s absolutely correct. Which is why teams are being ever more cautious with their players in the preseason. These meaningless games just aren’t worth it.