COMMENTARY | On Aug. 9, 2012, the New England Patriots battled the New Orleans Saints in what ended up being an ugly 7-6 preseason victory at Gillette Stadium. Although for New England backup linebacker Dane Fletcher, there was no victory.
There was just ugly.
Lined up in punt coverage midway through the first quarter of action, Fletcher tore the ACL in his left knee. No. 52 left the field on that muggy Thursday night with the help of medical staff, and it was the final time he'd leave the field that season.
Fletcher was waived with an injury designation the following Monday. He went unclaimed and reverted to the team's injured reserve, which left him inactive for the remainder of the 2012 campaign.
It was a season lost before it began, all as a result of a play that never counted. Not because it was an exhibition game, but because a Saints player had jumped offside. The penalty flags were tossed, the punt was annulled, and the Patriots were given a fresh set of downs.
Fletcher's knee, on the other hand, was not.
A third-year pro at the time, Fletcher had carved himself a niche on special teams. To head coach Bill Belichick, the 6'2", 245-pounder was quickly becoming a factor on defense as well. He vouched for Fletcher following that preseason opener, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport:
"He's played on first and second down, played on third down and played in the kicking game, so he has some versatility," Belichick said. "He's had roles on different downs on different times or different game plans. So he's done all of those things to some degree."
Fletcher's impact was felt in all aspects of the game. Consequently, he was difficult for Belichick to replace. Veteran reserves Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides, Jeff Tarpinian and Mike Rivera were all part of the fold in lieu of the Bozeman, Mont., native.
Despite the fact all four were quality special teamers, none of whom were comparable to Fletcher in sub packages. According to Football Outsiders, White logged 70 defensive snaps over the regular season, while Koutouvides, Tarpinian and Rivera consumed a grand total of 34 snaps. Together they contributed a combined 25 tackles.
In contrast, Fletcher played in 13 tilts and amassed 23 tackles, two sacks, two pass deflections, an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery as a rookie. And as an NFL sophomore in 2011, Fletcher started five of 10 games and accumulated 32 tackles, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
No, he hasn't played an official football game for nearly a year, but don't be surprised if he exceeds his previous numbers this fall.
A healthy Fletcher has been making his presence felt in Foxboro, Mass., this offseason, participating in voluntary workouts and working himself back into the mix. He has made the most of his extended looks, too.
CSNNE.com's Tom E. Curran reported that up through June 10, Fletcher was seizing opportunities in OTAs, even working with the starting linebacker group. That being said, Fletcher's reps were a direct result of Brandon Spikes -- New England's No. 1 middle linebacker -- deciding to wait until mandatory minicamp to report to Patriot Place.
Spikes did eventually arrive, and Fletcher assumed a more modest role in practice shortly after. Nevertheless, don't assume that Fletcher's fourth NFL season will be one spent in the back seat.
Can the 26-year-old re-establish a meaningful role and coexist alongside Spikes and the other touted linebackers in New England's stable?
All signs point toward that being the case. Fletcher's got speed -- he posted a 4.62 40-yard dash time at his pro day -- plus the instincts and experience to excel on passing downs. On top of that, he's shown the grit to make contributions on all four special teams units. He may never blossom into an NFL starter, but he has been and should continue to be a serviceable player with adaptability.
He's also mentally prepared to overcome roadblocks. Last September, just weeks after his move to IR, Fletcher voiced his outlook to John Powers of The Boston Globe:
"I look at this in a positive light," he said. "I just say this is my year to harness in and study the game, and learn from head to toe what I can in one season."
If there's any indication of how Fletcher is handling his 2013 season beginning, it was evidenced by how he handled his 2012 season ending. Expect a comeback.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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