Oh dear. Are the New England Patriots facing a Groundhog Day scenario once more?
One would certainly hope not, considering they navigated through the 2013 season with one of the most significant NFL roster injury crises in recent memory.
Not only did they survive last season’s injuries, but they also excelled in that depleted environment, coming within a game of the Super Bowl with a roster markedly different from the one they began the season with.
While “Next man up” may sound like a worn-out phrase, here we are in 2014, and it fits snugly, much like a pair of game pants fresh out of the dryer.
The Patriots have just lost their top running back, a player crucial to a team that recently discovered an exceptionally effective offense through their running game and the opportunities it creates for play-action.
They’ve also bid farewell to their defensive leader and most proficient tackler, middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, just when the defense was starting to meet expectations.
Additionally, they’re now without their veteran leader on the offensive line, Dan Connolly, the consistency and versatility of whose play were invaluable to an immensely improved group.
Well, it’s time to step up for the next man. Welcome (once again) to the NFL.
In so-called ‘next-man-up’ situations, it’s seldom convenient for you or your team.
Each of the abovementioned injuries came as an unexpected surprise during the game, so the Next Man finds themselves thrust into a situation where their skill set might not align with the current game plan.
As the Next Man in these instances, you simply have to adopt a “fake it until you make it” mentality.
There’s typically not much time to devise new plays or defenses, and you certainly don’t want to discard something that still suits the other ten players just because it doesn’t perfectly suit the new addition.
Indeed, some sideline improvisations and adjustments inevitably occur. Still, there’s just not enough time for a start-from-scratch approach when the unexpected unfolds in real-time NFL scenarios.
If you’re subbing in at running back, middle linebacker, or offensive guard, the plays (or defenses) are essentially the ones the team has drilled all week.
It falls on the Next Man to execute a reasonable imitation of the person they’re replacing, essentially following the rule or responsibility of the given play call.
Adapting those calls to suit your strengths is something to consider during the next week of preparation.
But for now, there’s no time for that…
Much like Marty McFly’s underwear says “Calvin,” mine says “Next Man.”
I found myself in this scenario numerous times as an NFL linebacker and special teams player.
In many ways, my worth to the team lay in my versatility across the four potential linebacker positions in a 3-4 defense.
I’m self-assured enough to acknowledge that being a “master of none” is inherent to this role, or else Next Men like me wouldn’t have been in that position, broadly speaking.
The ability to seamlessly switch between various roles without a noticeable drop-off from the ‘First Men’ is essentially what defines this job.
The challenge for someone like me, tasked with being the Next Man, is that playing as an outside linebacker is a markedly different role than stepping in as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Yet, you have to be proficient in all of them, or else your value diminishes.
Outside linebackers must excel at pass rushing, cover seams as droppers in the passing game, and contend with tight, athletic ends on the edge of the line.
On the other hand, inside linebacker feels more like a bar brawl in a tiny bar with enormous individuals.
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.
One job feels like an aggressive dance, while the other is more akin to a series of car crashes.
At times, there might be similarities, but often they are vastly different.
The challenge for a team lies in finding players whose makeup and skill set are adaptable enough to handle both roles until others recover.
As a devoted Patriots fan, you likely appreciate the distinct skill set differences between players like Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest compared to a player like Tedy Bruschi.
Next Men like me need to be flexible enough for the defense to maintain its performance when we’re inserted into the lineup at various positions.
These distinctive traits aren’t exclusive to the linebacker position that I’m intimately familiar with.
These distinctions can be observed throughout an NFL offense or defense.
The demands on an offensive lineman vary significantly across the five positions along the line.
It’s pretty apparent, and not uncommon, for someone to excel in two out of the five positions but struggle in the others.
The same applies to positions in the secondary, wide receiver, and offensive backfield.
It’s all under the umbrella of ‘football,’ but that label alone doesn’t provide the whole picture.
At times, Next Men act as bridges for several weeks. Sometimes, they have to assume the role for entire seasons.
Rosters constructed to withstand this predictability have a notable advantage in the later stages of the year.
They don’t need to divert attention from one area to another, potentially creating new issues.
Instead, they can continue propelling their team in the direction it was already headed.
The Patriots’ specific challenges at middle linebacker, running back, and guard/center positions may not find resolution for several weeks.
This is because it will take time to establish stability in those spots through new game planning and potential roster adjustments (both incoming and outgoing).
Young linebacker Deontae Skinner, seasoned running back Brandon Bolden, and a group of individuals on the offensive line had a commendable performance last weekend in Buffalo—genuinely living up to the Next Man spirit.
Will the Patriots persist similarly, or will they seek different configurations to tackle what they perceive as unique challenges ahead? Only time will tell.
Much like the Next Men, it’s a waiting game. Waiting. Waiting. And then, hopefully, making a significant impact for their team.