The full story finally emerged regarding Tom Brady’s significant thumb injury days before the 2018 AFC Championship game. It reveals much more about the Patriots and the reason for their success than it does about any injury specifics. Bill Belichick’s playoff and Super Bowl success can be tied to their ability to change and adapt, including late season and in game.
How is a thumb laceration remotely related to such a grand statement related to strategy and mindset? Because the thumb injury happened as a result of a new play install. In fact, I can tell you the new play that caused the injury. In their first drive in the AFC title game vs Jaguars at 2nd and 9 at 13:10 Q1, New England runs a jet sweep to Rex Burkhead. This was an entirely new play for them and I will tell try to convince you later this was the install that injured Brady’s thumb as I discussed on Radio Row with SiriusXM NFL before Super Bowl LII.
When reports of a “cut” on Brady’s hand originally surfaced, it was obvious to me it was in inside-out laceration or “tearing” of the skin due to a digit dislocation as there is nothing that sharp on a helmet or belt buckle as some speculated. When it was subsequently revealed the laceration was near the palm side base of the thumb it indicated to me a severe displacement from a significant jamming type injury.
These injuries happen on certain handoffs gone awry.
This is something that might happen early season with young players unfamiliar to each other and the playbook. It doesn’t happen to veterans much less the “goat” with a stable of relatively experienced ballcarriers and it certainly does not occur at the end of seasons. But it does to the Patriots because even despite their success and being on the verge of the Super Bowl, they change.
Let’s analyze the play. It has been confirmed it was Burkhead who “caused” the thumb injury and he was coming back off knee injury and hadn’t played recently before this. The trips formation to the right and reverse was the first of this kind all season. It is a timing/speed/misdirection play that involves a blind turn by Brady and a one-handed handoff. Watch the play yourself and see how tentative both players are.
Burkehead is not at full speed and has his hands spread very wide being so careful to avoid Brady’s thumb in securing the ball he bobbles it momentarily. See how gingerly the pigskin is placed in the RB’s belly and how quickly Tom pulls his hand away. This play gained five yards but was uncharacteristic in the slow development and timing. Also, does it surprise anyone that Belichick insisted on running the play but Josh McDaniels called it early to get it out of the way and out of the minds of the players.
In my NFL experience, most teams morph gradually every four weeks, which is why this is the game film most studied. Week to week, coaches might add a wrinkle, run the same play out of different motion or formation but it is the typically the same basic concept. Belichick is unique in being like a successful “chef” that is willing to change the “menu” completely, not just the presentation or the sauce. Not many other coaches are brave enough to change a winning formula.
This is why fantasy players have long disliked Patriots players. One week it is James White, another it is Sony Michel. Belichick in a given week made a star out of Chris Hogan or Danny Ammendola when he had a healthy Julian Edelman. This is not by accident. This is so in a given week, in a game or even second half, New England is used to change which makes it hard to prepare. Need anyone (especially Falcons fans) be reminded of the 28-3 Super Bowl LI comeback win?
All teams talk the mantra of one game at a time and only speak of the next opponent. Most teams quietly say let’s win the division and get into the playoffs and see what happens. Would it surprise anyone if internally, the Patriots were Lombardi or bust? No question Belichick wants to win every game but if he can win by making other players stepping up, it only prepares them for key injuries or other situations that arise in the one and done playoffs.
In the end, the revelations about Brady’s thumb are intriguing but the reality is it tells us more about the Patriots as the ultimate situational football team that can and does change constantly.