FOXBOROUGH — Sprawled on the turf at Gillette Stadium, writhing in pain after being rolled into, Aaron Hernandez immediately feared the worst for his damaged right ankle.
“Broke,” Hernandez said Wednesday, 32 days after suffering the injury, and four days since he returned to game action. A fracture was his initial guess.
No break, it turned out, just a severe sprain, which cost him the rest of that game against the Cardinals Sept. 16, then three more. He came back last Sunday at Seattle, catching six passes for 30 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ 24-23 loss.
While not invoking a complete code of silence — Hernandez had been seen plenty in the locker room while rehabilitating, and would occasionally chat casually — Wednesday marked the first time the 22-year-old tight end met with the media since the injury.
Plenty of ground to cover, then. A quick sampling:
Question: How did it feel to be back on the field?
Hernandez: “I felt pretty good, it was good to be back out there to help the team.”
Question: Any postgame complications from the injury?
Hernandez: “I came out healthy, and hopefully I’ll come out healthy this week.”
Question: Was it tough being on the sidelines?
Hernandez: “I wasn’t really on the sidelines, I was at home. Obviously, it was tough, especially when you live to play football, been doing it your whole life, and want to play, want to help the team. That’s why I came back.”
The Patriots are glad to have Hernandez back, even if his return game ended in defeat. He missed practice Wednesday (he is still listed on the injury report because of the ankle) but is expected to be in uniform come Sunday, when the Patriots welcome the Jets in an AFC East clash.
By design, the Patriots have been cautious with Hernandez since the injury. He first practiced Sept. 27, the Thursday before the Denver game, but was inactive against the Broncos. Hernandez missed a practice last week, but when his packed bags were spotted Friday, hours before the team flew to Seattle, the odds were good that he’d be active.
But even when he was, he didn’t have the green light to do as he pleased.
“We obviously limited some of the things that we did with him, but he made some important plays for us,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “I thought Aaron tried to do exactly what we wanted him to do with his opportunities, and hopefully that will continue to improve as we go forward.”
Hernandez was on the field for 38 of the Patriots’ 86 plays, or 44 percent, and was targeted nine times.
It didn’t take the Patriots long to go to him, Tom Brady completing an 8-yard pass to Hernandez on the game’s first play. So much for easing Hernandez back in.
“Maybe I was a step slower, but I felt pretty good, and looking forward to keep getting better,” Hernandez said. “When you’re out there on the field, you kind of forget about everything and just hope for the best. Once I caught that first pass, got back into the game, I wanted some more.”
He’ll likely get it, since Hernandez, when healthy, is one of the most important parts in the Patriots’ offensive engine. A tight end by designation, he is changing the definition of his position because of his versatile skill set, lining up in an array of spots, including the backfield on occasion. Hernandez has yet to have a 1,000-yard regular season (563 as a rookie, 910 last season), but can hurt defenses multiple ways.
Plenty of people who know football have noticed.
“Having him back and healthy, it makes that offense as good as it can be,” said Matt Bowen, who played safety in the NFL from 2000-06 and now writes for NationalFootballPost.com. “He’s not as physical a blocker as [Rob] Gronkowski, but he’s kind of that new-wave NFL athlete — the guy that can do a lot of things — and defensive coordinators end up sleeping in their offices because of guys like that. They’re scared because they don’t know how to stop them, because those guys aren’t easy to find.”
What makes Hernandez so tough to defend?
“As much of a mismatch as Gronk is, Aaron Hernandez is just as much of a mismatch for a defensive back,” Bowen said. “Think of a safety that’s got to cover this guy. He’s not as fast as a wide receiver, but he almost is, and he’s bigger than every wide receiver.
“He has much quicker lateral movement; Gronk’s more of a straight-line guy. With Hernandez, you have to be able to cover the route, but you’ve also got to tackle him. You try to tackle this guy in the open field, that’s no fun at all.”
Nobody was able to tackle Hernandez for most of the past month, since he was laid up and recovering from an injury that looked worse than it ended up being. He wanted to make an impact his first game back — one of the reasons he wasn’t active against the Broncos, because the team felt he needed more time. With more time came more practice, and with more practice came more confidence.
“I gained some more confidence, cutting off the ankle, because I cut a lot,” Hernandez said. “I know we have a great training staff, and they’re going to work hard to get us back, especially under Bill [Belichick’s] supervision. So I knew I was going to have a quick recovery, and I came back pretty good.”