Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork doesn't want it to be over, but he understands the implications. A ten year veteran, Wilfork knows that he's closer to the end than to the beginning and with this season's achilles injury his timeline just became a little bit shorter than before.
Per Mass Live's Nick Underhill, 66% of achilles injuries force a player out of the league, or reduce them to a far inferior role. At 32, a healthy Wilfork could have expected maybe three more seasons at a peak level. A post-injury Wilfork has an entirely different outlook.
He means more to the team than just being another player. He's a leader for both the team and in the community. He's a five-time All-Pro, a loving husband, and a proud father of three. He's been one of the faces of the franchise since he was drafted, and he's not the only one in his position.
Jerod Mayo. Brandon Spikes. Tommy Kelly. Sebastian Vollmer. Rob Gronkowski. Josh Boyce. All done for the season.
Shane Vereen. Aaron Dobson. Kenbrell Thompkins. Danny Amendola. Alfonzo Dennard. Aqib Talib. Kyle Arrington. Steve Gregory. All missed extensive time due to injuries.
The Patriots have had terrible luck with the health of their players this season, and it's not a first time occurrence.
2012. Donte' Stallworth, Gronkowski, Dane Fletcher, Julian Edelman, Ras-I Dowling, Will Allen.
2011. Andre Carter, Jermaine Cunningham, Mike Wright, Dan Koppen.
2010. Leigh Bodden, Ron Brace, Kevin Faulk, Stephen Gostkowski, Nick Kaczur, Brandon McGowan, Stephen Neal, Ty Warren, Jonathan Wilhite, Mike Wright.
It happens year after year, season after season, and the players are losing out on their careers and the Patriots are losing out on their investments- and they're not the only team. Injuries plague the league and it's not unusual to see the luckiest team finish at the top. In a battle of attrition, those who can withstand the strongest blows will outlast those who cannot.
There seems to be one team impervious to this fight. A team with a head coach that some might consider a close friend of Bill Belichick. Someone whose brain that Belichick absolutely needs to pick during the off-season. A coach who entered with much fanfare, ridicule, intensity, and smoothies.
Bill, make sure you place a call to Chip Kelly once the season is over.
Kelly is the rookie head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and was responsible for not only the most explosive offense in college football, but also sharing tips on how the Patriots could match the Oregon Ducks' offensive tempo. A New Hampshire native and a New England resident for a large portion of his life, Kelly and Belichick managed to form a bond as one defensive football innovator to one offensive football innovator.
Chip took over the 4-12 Eagles with the intention of transforming the franchise and ushering in a new age of football. Kelly not only understood the importance of innovative coaching, but also of the care of the player. Or rather, the coaching creativity would be all for naught if the players were unable to take the field. They are the most important assets on the team since they are, well, the team.
Pumping resources into the players' well-being is slightly unorthodox, but so is monitoring their movement at practice with futuristic technology, providing protein smoothies after practice, and hiring a former Navy SEALS trainer. Kelly wasn't, isn't, about being orthodox. He's about changing the game and how players can remain effective deep into the season.
The most important piece of information is that it worked. Sure, there's some luck involved, but the fact that the Eagles went the entire season without placing someone on the injured reserve cannot be overlooked. Let me rephrase that; the Eagles have not placed someone on the injured reserve since August. Once Nick Foles took over for Michael Vick, only one starter missed time for the rest of the season (safety Earl Wolff missed three games with a knee injury).
In comparison, the Patriots have place seven players on the injured reserve over the course of the year, plus Shane Vereen going on the short-term IR, as well as countless starters missing time.
So how does Kelly do it? He's changed the way the team thinks about practice.
He's hired a former Navy SEALS trainer named Shaun Huls to be the team's Sports Science Coordinator, having pushed his 2011 college unit through a SEALS-led training regiment. Huls is deeply involved with the science behind training and employs the highest levels of technology for the betterment of the players.
He has technology that can tell when a player is standing around, how much they're moving around, what their heart rate, the intensity of their movements, their maximum capacity, and probably the optimum number of breaths a player should take during the week (unconfirmed). Heck, he even has access to technology that can determine when a player is rested enough to participate in high stress scenarios. College teams are using technology that has yielded a 75% reduction in soft-tissue issues; why can't a professional team provide the same level of progressive care?
And Kelly isn't just watching their physical fitness; he's monitoring their physical well-being. A player's fitness and health isn't just determined by how fast they can do their sprints, but also how long it takes them to recover, how hydrated they are, if they're getting the appropriate nutrients needed to heal from the practice.
In fact, Kelly personalizes smoothies for his players, in order to complement their diet (team recommended!) and their training. Every player gets their own smoothie. It's full body care and the players love it. Veteren tight end Brent Celek doesn't know why team wouldn't follow Kelly's methods do the same training.
"He wants you to sleep better, wants you to eat right, and he wants you to take care of your muscles," Celek said, "It makes sense to me."
The players have bought into his system and they're reaping the health benefits. People thought Kelly was just going to bring a high intensity level to the game and to practice, but his coaching goes so much deeper.
Belichick called Kelly prior to the season to request a series of joint practices and there's plenty of respect to go around. Belichick helped welcome Kelly into the league and likely shared coaching techniques. I can only imagine that Kelly would be happy to return the favor.
There might not be a need for the Patriots, year after year, to have key players miss extended periods of time due to injury. And for players like big man Vince Wilfork, they should be comfortable knowing that their team did everything they could to take care of their most important assets.
Wilfork took to the airwaves not knowing what the future held for him, but knowing for certain he didn't want his football career to be over. According to Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Wilfork went as far as apologizing for getting hurt. "Sorry, boss man," Wilfork said. "I’m sorry that I let you down."
Vince, you don't have to apologize for anything. You've given your all for the past decade and no one can ask any more from you. You deserve another shot and the key to your health and success might be out there, inside the head of a close friend.
It's just a matter of picking up the phone to make a call the team can't afford to ignore.