By Matt Dolloff
BOSTON (CBS) -- The New England Patriots offense has not looked like its usual productive self in the second half of the 2015 season, due in no small part to the loss of Julian Edelman. Ever since Tom Brady's most trusted target went down with a foot injury known as a "Jones fracture," Brady hasn't moved the ball as consistently as Patriots fans are accustomed to seeing.
Edelman's imminent return against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Playoff could jolt the Patriots offense back to being the same machine that sliced up opposing defenses with ruthless efficiency in the first half of the season. However, based on the recent history of Jones fractures in other athletes, it may not be that simple.
Edelman has a chance to produce at a high level when he gets back on the field; he's already said he's expecting to go "full throttle" and is putting in extra work to get back in sync with Brady ahead of the team's run at a second straight Super Bowl title.
"It's just going out and doing a bunch of routes with short rest times to build your lungs and the strength in your legs," Edelman told Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald.
Despite looking fully recovered in practice, Edelman, like all players at this point in the season, is not really at 100 percent, and to expect a dominating performance in his return might be asking too much. There's also a chance he could re-injure the foot (although he's not worried about it), and a high probability of additional surgery in the offseason.
Here's a look at Edelman's recovery and what to expect from him in his return, as compared to two other high-profile athletes who suffered the same injury.
The "Jones Fracture"
Common in pro athletes, a "Jones Fracture" is a break at the base of the fifth metatarsal, the bone that connects the small toe to the foot. It severely impacts a player's ability to plant on the foot and make normal cuts on his routes when he returns from it; route-running is Edelman's best asset.
Here's an x-ray to show where the fracture occurs:
Star Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant suffered a Jones fracture early this season and looked like his normal self upon returning, only to decline as the season wore on and eventually be shut down. Elsewhere, NBA superstar Kevin Durant suffered a Jones fracture before the beginning of the 2014-15 season, and it lingered and led to other injuries throughout the campaign as Durant never fully recovered.
It's no guarantee that Edelman's Jones fracture, in particular, would be as problematic as it were for Bryant and Durant, but their cases set a strong recent precedent of athletes never quite being right when they return during the same season. Edelman could very well be the same guy he was in the first several weeks of 2015, but it's possible that you won't see that guy until the start of next season.
Recovery And Return
Athletes generally take 6-8 weeks to heal a Jones fracture and return to game action, assuming they immediately undergo surgery. Durant's recovery took about seven weeks before returning to the court, while Bryant also returned to the field after about seven weeks but returned to Cowboys practice on a limited basis after about four.
Edelman suffered the injury on November 15 against the Giants and returned to practice on December 11, just under four weeks later. His return to the field on Saturday will mark nine weeks since the injury. Edelman has looked good in practice, but speed, intensity, and physicality obviously see a massive increase in real games.
The above-average recovery time for Edelman could benefit him in his return, but there will be no way to tell how strong he is until he takes the field at Gillette Stadium.
The million-dollar question hovering over Edelman: How will he play when he returns? The good news is, Durant and Bryant looked like their usual selves upon making it back to game action. The bad news? Both of them declined as the season wore on, suffered new injuries, and/or ended their seasons prematurely and required further surgery.
Bryant played 48 of 58 snaps in his return for the Cowboys, and only caught two passes for 12 yards but was shadowed by Seattle's Richard Sherman. He caught five balls for 104 yards and an impressive Hail Mary touchdown in his second game back, a week after declaring "My foot is good," but gradually slowed down as the season went along, culminating in an ugly drop-filled performance against the Green Bay Packers. He underwent additional foot surgery on January 6 as the team reported that his foot was "not right."
Durant's case was especially messy. He played well for nine games in his return before missing six more games with an ankle injury, returning for 12 games before spraining a toe and missing two more games, and returning yet again to play six games before ultimately shutting it down. Durant's bone graft surgery was initially reported as being due to "increased soreness," but it was later revealed that he suffered a second "crack" in the same foot.
All of these additional foot injuries indicate that Durant spent the season trying to compensate for the lack of strength in his injured toe. Edelman said that he has had to make adjustments to how he pushes off and makes cuts in his route-running.
What To Expect
Fortunately for the Patriots, they only need Edelman back for a maximum of three games, one of which would have a bye week in between. He could certainly play at his usual level for three games in four weeks. But the risk of re-injuring his foot is greater than you may realize, and the adjustments he's made to his footwork could lead to additional injuries and, likely, more surgery in the offseason.
There is not a great precedent for Edelman's ability to stay healthy and play at a high level upon his return. But he only needs to do it for one more month, and if he can hold on for that long, the Patriots offense could get the massive spark they need.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.
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