Injuries are part and parcel of the game of Football. Like touchdowns, penalties, transactions and turnovers, they happen and are dealt with accordingly.
Wide-ranging from a hamstring strain to the dreaded high ankle sprain, a pulled groin to a torn ACL, an opportunity lost for one player becomes an opportunity gained for another. Those players who find themselves on the more unfortunate side of the swinging pendulum can ensure they are not forgotten by putting in the long, daunting hours of rehabilitation inside the four walls of the treatment room as their healthy teammates take to the field to do what they love; play football.
For three New Orleans Saints in particular, the dawn of the 2014 season, which has begun to unfold in earnest with the opening of training camp last week, presents an opportunity to erase the memories of those unfortunate instances that left them on the treatment table as opposed to where they belong, in the huddle. 2013 is now in the history books, and the hours of treatment and rehab provide a chance to bring them back into the mix with the start of the new season just over a month away.
Patrick Robinson, Joe Morgan and Victor Butler can say that the last 12 months have been unforgiving to say the least. But a year later, the light at the end of the tunnel has already shined brightly enough to glisten down upon the trio as they made their return to the practice field with no restrictions as the Saints opened camp at the West Virginia-based Greenbrier Resort late last week.
In Butler's case, camp could not have come soon enough. Signed last spring with the intent to play a major role in Rob Ryan's defense, Butler tore an ACL during an OTA session in June 2013. After four productive seasons as a situational pass-rusher in Dallas, Butler's first season in Black and Gold was essentially over before it ever began. Victor Butler looks to put his injury-riddled 2013 season behind him.
Butler had been pencilled in as a likely starter at the SAM linebacker position. His familiarity with Ryan, who he worked under in Dallas, was a big reason why the Saints handed him a two-year, $3 million contract with the hope that he would emerge from the shadows of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer and blossom into an elite pass-rushing, linebacking dynamo in his own right. A collision with Mark Ingram in what was supposed to be a non-contact drill put an abrupt end to those thoughts. The owner of 11 career sacks and 4 forced fumbles was placed on the shelf with a bum knee and a suddenly bleak future.
However, Butler is healthy now. He returned to take part in OTAs during the spring and is full-go for 2014 training camp. Ryan knows that the former Orgeon State man can still be a productive force in his ever-improving defense.
"There’s a guy coming off injury that we’ve got to see how he’s going to do, how he’s going to progress and things like that," Ryan said after practice Saturday. "We’re excited about that, can’t wait to see him play, see him rush the passer, do the things we know he’s capable of.”
Butler's return should allow Ryan to employ more of his preferred base 3-4 schematic looks on early downs and obvious rushing downs. The 6-2 245 'backer is capable of providing run support in addition to his bubbling pass rush prowess.
Another defensive player looking to put a serious knee injury and lost season behind him is cornerback Patrick Robinson. The team's 2010 first-round pick went down with a torn patella tendon during the week 2 victory over Tampa Bay. He entered last season as the team's nickel corner, and had hoped to add to his 7 career interceptions before his leg gave out on him.
In addition to his injury worries, Robinson, 26, had further doubt cast over his future with the team as the Saints had to make some tough decisions in regards to the salary cap this past offseason. Ticketed to earn just over $1.2 million in 2014, Robinson emerged as a possible cap casualty, though New Orleans eventually elected to spare him from the cull of transactions that saw the likes of Jonathan Vilma, Lance Moore and Jabari Greer depart.
Robinson progressed through his rehab and, like Butler, was able to participate in OTAs during the spring. He even garnered some reps with the first-team defense during those workouts, and has continued to see himself sprinkled in with the 1's thus far throughout training camp. Patrick Robinson is healthy and a full participant at Saints training camp.
"He’s looking great," Ryan said of Robinson. "He’s competing with Champ (Bailey) and Corey White, so that will be a great competition all camp. We’re blessed to have some really good football players, and Patrick looks great. He’s always looked smooth. He’s a unique guy. He’s a tall guy that can bend, and those guys are really rare. He’s in great shape, he’s worked hard all offseason, so we’re excited about him and the things he’s going to bring for us.”
Head coach Sean Payton was equally impressed with the 5-11 190 corner's work ethic throughout the offseason.
“He is doing well and moving around well," said the Saints' coach. "I am pleased with the amount of time he’s spent, everyday there is a handful of guys that you saw, forget the offseason program, that were almost like fixtures in the building, he was one of them.”
Yet another Saint hoping to erase the painful memories of a lost season and significant knee injury is receiver Joe Morgan. The 26 year-old speedster went down with a partially torn ACL and meniscus tear last August during an intrasquad scrimmage. Undrafted in 2011, Morgan saw a knee injury that summer hinder his chances of making the 53-man roster after an impressive preseason. Two knee injuries in three years would put most behind the 8 ball, but Morgan, re-signed by the Saints in March, hopes to prove he is healthy again, and can build off a small, yet impressive sample size of big play ability which he was able to showcase during the 2012 season when healthy and able.
Serving as a pure deep threat two seasons ago, Morgan caught 10 passes for 379 yards and 3 scores, good enough for an eye-popping 37.9 yards per catch. Obviously predicated off a minimal amount of receptions, that average was supplemented by Morgan's speed, with his signature play of that season coming in a close loss at Green Bay as he hauled in an 80 yard bomb for a score from Drew Brees. Now healthy, Joe Morgan took Robert Meachem's place in the first team offense in Sunday's practice.
With Devery Henderson gone and Robert Meachem transitioning into more of a role player, Morgan could still fill the role of a straight-line speedster capable of popping the lid off a defense. Furthermore, before going down last summer, Morgan had put in extra time working on the intracacies of his route running abilities, hoping to shore up his short and intermediate patterns in an effort to become a more complete target for Brees and the offense.
Payton is glad to welcome Morgan back, and is hopeful he can contribute once again as a downfield threat and potentially as an option in the return game.
"Look, the knee injury (Morgan) had was significant," said Payton. "It was much more than just an ACL, so to see him out here and to see him at the conditioning test and do all of those things, it takes a full year with the injury he had and some. It was good to see and he was running well today.”
With both Kenny Stills and Meachem currently nursing minor injuries, a healthy Morgan has absorbed extra work with the first-team offense. That should help boost his confidence and chances of making his mark throughout preseason as he looks to lock down a roster spot.
The trio of Victor Butler, Patrick Robinson and Joe Morgan have all navigated the long and winding roads of rehabilitation and recovery from their respective knee woes. Now, with a clean bill of health, they hope to make the best of a new opportunity in 2014, while crumpling up the lingering memories of a lost 2013 and tossing them into the garbage bin.
The light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter and brighter in the comforting West Virginia sky.