When you’re a perennial Super Bowl contender and playing deep into January almost every year, like the Patriots for instance, you run into some problems other franchises simply don’t have. For example, maybe your players start feeling the effects of longer seasons after awhile and aren’t quite as fresh when the next year’s playoffs roll around.
So, as Albert Breer for TheMMQB.com explains, the Patriots have been experimenting with some different strategies early on in the past couple of seasons, and in 2016, it’s led to a different approach with how the team handles its veteran players. Rather than rush people back from injuries and try to rack up as many wins as possible in 16 games, it’s almost as if New England is treating September as an extension of the preseason, giving guys breaks and letting them work back slowly from injuries. Per Breer:
“As I understand it, the experience of going into the AFC title game beaten to a pulp with injuries last January has prompted New England to handle its players a little differently this season. In essence, there are games where they’ve accepted not going with a full roster. They were cautious with the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, who were both beat up last January, as well as Dont’a Hightower, and the suspension of Tom Brady gave him what could be termed an organic four-game break at 39 years old. So far it hasn’t hurt the team’s bottom line much—they’re 6-1—and the benefits, at least on paper, are still a ways off from being realized. It’s also fair to see where this idea could extend into on-field strategy, too, with the team tinkering or holding back its offensive or defensive calls, with an eye on the higher-stakes parts of the season.”
While the Patriots might be the first team to actively take such an approach to managing their roster, the idea is not completely unheard of. Some analysts have suggested if the NFL ever went to an 18-game schedule, it might necessitate teams “rest” players in certain situations to get all of their stars through the year.
When you’re the Patriots, apparently you can get away with it on a 16-game slate, even when Brady is out for a quarter of it. Even if this wasn’t entirely intended, and injuries sort of forced the team’s hand, there’s no denying New England could reap the benefits of having so many players get additional time off in September by the time January hits.