FOXBORO -- As we were sitting in the press box before last Sunday’s game against the Bills, I turned to my colleague Kirk Minihane and asked if he thought Logan Mankins had any chance of playing with calf and hip injuries.
I should’ve known better.
This is the man who tore his right ACL on opening night in 2011 and played the entire season, including the Super Bowl, because "no one knew."
This is the man who, despite playing hurt all season, switched to left tackle against the Dolphins on Christmas Eve because the team was short linemen, only to sprain the MCL in his left knee. He reportedly tore the MCL in the playoff game against Denver -- something he would not confirm earlier this year.
"Put a brace on and tape an aspirin," Mankins said in August with a wry smile when asked how he played through all of it.
"I think we all know Logan is one of the tougher players on our team," Bill Belichick said in training camp. "We have a lot of tough guys, but he’s got a lot of physical and mental toughness, no question about that."
Mankins is the man who had reconstructive surgery in February and was back on the field during training camp. This is the man who was ready for the season opener in Tennessee at starting left guard and played the first three games of the season before sitting out at Buffalo.
Mankins continues to prove to teammates and coaches alike why he is a freak of nature. All due respect to John Hannah, Steve Grogan, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, Mankins is the toughest player ever to put on a Patriots uniform.
Still, I wondered aloud to Minihane. Why would there be any reason to risk playing him?
We both played the ‘save him for the games in late December and January’ card. After all, the Patriots have been gashing teams again offensively, even when he hasn’t been in the lineup.
"Oh, I’m a football player," Mankins said earlier this year on what drives him. "That what I do. That’s my job."
It came as a mild surprise when Mankins was announced a scratch before the Jets game at Gillette on Oct. 21 with calf and hip injuries. Yes, he was limited all week in practice but that hadn’t meant much before. He had missed plenty of practices before in a week leading up to a game and still played. But he missed that game and the next week in London against the Rams.
It came equally as a surprise when Mankins was announced active before Sunday’s game against the Bills.
What could a few more weeks of rest hurt?
The Patriots’ two biggest games in terms of points scored this season have come with him sitting at home resting. They scored 45 without him in London and against the same Bills team on Sept. 30, they scored 45 in the second half in clobbering the Bills, 52-28.
Still, he suited up. He played and the Patriots scored 24 points with him at left guard in the first half.
But early in the third quarter – on the Patriots’ first possession of the second half – Tom Brady was sacked. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams split the line of scrimmage and Mankins, attempting to stop Williams, fell backwards. Ryan Wendell fell over on Mankins, who rolled his left ankle. He hobbled to the sideline and had Dr. Tom Gill and trainer Jim Whalen take a look, wrap it up and walk to test it. No go. The toughest Patriot would watch the rest of the game from the sideline.
So, now Mankins is dealing with a sprained left ankle, a strained calf and an injured hip to go with one surgically repaired and reconstructed knee. When will it end?
Mankins will do whatever he can to be on the field soon, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way again.
Which brings us to the following: We all know being tough doesn’t always mean being smart. As a matter of fact, it usually means just the opposite as far as one’s physical well being is concerned.
In this day and age, the NFL, more than any other sport, is sensitive to the health of its players, who have put themselves and their brains in danger for decades now. Countless studies have been commissioned and the NFL is most certainly trying to avoid a class-action lawsuit down the road by establishing guidelines for its players to follow.
There is more and more sensitivity to play football smart more than playing it recklessly.
The dirtiest word in football is concussion. It’s so dirty that it’s made its way to the NBA, NHL and even MLB. All have come up with protocols for players’ well being defined in their respective collective bargaining agreements.
Last week, while Mankins was suffering another dent in his physical armor, Alex Smith, Jay Cutler and Michael Vick all sustained concussions of varying degrees.
"The positive is all three were taken out of the game as soon as they showed symptoms," Commissioner Roger Goodell said. "This is progress."
The real progress is players understanding the fine line between playing through pain and thinking about your life after football.
It’s a line that Mankins continues to walk as long as his knees, hips, calves and ankles allow.
Here is one person’s list of the toughest Patriots of all-time:
1. Logan Mankins … see above
2. Steve Grogan: Two words – Neck collar. He had five knee surgeries, screws in his leg after the tip of his fibula snapped, a crackedfibula that snapped when he tried to practice, two ruptured disks in his neck, which he played with for nearly two seasons, a broken left hand, two separated shoulders on each side, the reattachment of a tendon to his throwing elbow. If anyone could challenge Mankins on this list, it’s Grogan.
3. John Hannah: One of the very best offensive linemen of all time. Like Mankins, was a stud left guard for the Patriots, but when they were a run-first team. Big, strong, immovable force on the Patriots offensive line for 13 seasons, starting in 1973.
4. Andre Tippett: Bill Belichick acknowledges that if it weren’t for Lawrence Taylor, Tippett likely would’ve been regarded as the greatest linebacker of his generation.
5. Rodney Harrison: One of the hardest hitters of his era. Broke his arm in Super Bowl XXXVIII making a hit. Never let his body come in the way of making a vicious hit.
6. Tedy Bruschi: A fierce leader in the locker room. A fierce competitor on the field. Overcame a stroke caused by a hole in his heart to resume his NFL career.
7. Houston Antwine: One of the first great defensive linemen in Patriots history.
8. Drew Bledsoe: In getting leveled by Mo Lewis on Sept. 23, 2001, took one of the hardest hits a QB has ever taken to make way for Tom Brady. Bledsoe, sometimes of his own doing, took a beating in the early rebuilding days of the Patriots as he stood in the pocket and waited until the last moment to deliver the ball.
9. Bruce Armstrong: A legendary career at left tackle. Played great football on bad teams. That makes any man tough. Armstrong started in 212 (including the last 118 of his career), making him the single playerwith the most starts of any Patriot. The only games he missed were in the second half of the 1992, after tearing the medial collateral ligament and both his anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in his right knee against theBills in November that year. Though it was feared that the injury would end his career, Armstrong rebounded and was back the next season.
10. Ben Coates: Bledsoe’s safety blanket was Rob Gronkowski back in the day, a beast to take down who took the best hits opposing defenses had to offer.
Honorable mention: Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton, Donnie Blackmon, Steve Nelson, Tom Brady, Matt Light
For the Trags Bag, we proposed asking the same question but applying it over all Boston sports. The answers were predictably sarcastic. Some were not. Here are just a few.
@Ct_Smoke JacobyGlass~Bury 1, 2 and 3
@JKLUTE1 Mosi Tatupu, Cam Neely and Jason Varitek
@matthewfjensen Tedy Bruschi, Shawn Thornton and Trot Nixon
@StephenSnel23 J.D. Drew
@mastergerm Ras-I Dowling. Jacoby Ellsbury. Avery Bradley
And from Facebook:
Paul Devlin: Monty Beisel, J.D. Drew, and Big Baby Davis
Paul Devlin: Part II. Carl Crawford, David Terrell, Dwayne Schintzus
Chad Staley: JD Drew.....ROFL!!
Mike Saia: John Hannah, Terry O'Reilly, Stan Jonathan
Matt Barry: Hannah, Grogan, Bourque