FAB 2. What Happens When Pierre-Paul Returns To Action?
The Bucs received some good news this week when outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul returned to the AdventHealth Training Center and was cleared to begin rehabbing his fractured neck.
Pierre-Paul suffered a serious neck injury the first week of May when his Ferrari crashed on a slick road in South Florida. That injury initially put his 2019 season in jeopardy, but doctors said that his fractured vertebrae could heal without surgery.
After spending three months in a neck brace, Pierre-Paul is one step closer to returning to action. The Bucs are optimistic that he can suit up in late October or November to aid the team’s pass rush down the stretch.
Pierre-Paul will start the year on the NFI (non-football injury) list, and he will be inactive for the first six games of the season. Then he will have the opportunity to practice with the team for the first time and for the Bucs’ brass to evaluate him. If he’s healthy, Tampa Bay will make a roster move and activate him to the 53-man roster. If not, he’ll go back on the NFI list and won’t be eligible to return for the remainder of the season.
So what will happen when JPP returns and plays this season? Let’s explore some potential outcomes.
The best-case scenario is that Pierre-Paul takes the field at midseason with fresh legs and makes an instant impact as a pass rusher off the edge on the weak side. If it’s one thing Pierre-Paul knows, it’s how to get to the quarterback, evidenced by his 12.5 sacks last year and the 71 QB captures in his career.
The other scenarios aren’t so rosy.
Pierre-Paul could come back and look great with fresh legs, but could butt heads with a left tackle or tight end and reinjure his neck in a collision at the line of scrimmage or when making a tackle. Of course the team doctors won’t clear him for contact unless that vertebrae is completely healthy, but there will always be some level of risk of re-injury.
Should that happen, another injury to Pierre-Paul’s neck could not only end his season, but also his career.
Even if he stays healthy, Pierre-Paul could also be rusty upon his return. He has never played in a 3-4 scheme and hasn’t practiced one play at One Buccaneer Place dating back to the OTAs and mini-camps. Will he have enough time to get in football shape and be anything more than a situational pass rusher?
Or will being a situational pass rusher be good enough for the rest of the year given JPP’s proficiency at getting to the quarterback?
Pierre-Paul is a pro’s pro and knows how to rush the passer, so doing it as a stand-up linebacker instead of a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end shouldn’t be much of a transition. But he has had zero practice time and the intricacies of Todd Bowles’ blitz packages could take some time to nail down.
Playing down the line of scrimmage rather than nose to nose with a left tackle on the line of scrimmage will help Pierre-Paul take fewer helmet-to-helmet shots due to the space he’ll have to work with as an edge rusher in Bowles’ 3-4 scheme. That could reduce his risk of re-injury, which is good.
The last scenario to consider is Pierre-Paul coming back healthy and ready to go, but being gun shy due to his neck injury. I’ve seen players that have had concussions in the past become gun shy and not like to stick their head into the action anymore for obvious reasons.
Pierre-Paul has had his share of injuries in the past, the most devastating of course being his fireworks accident in which he blew off a few fingers and severely injured his hand on a fateful Fourth of July a few years ago. No one is questioning Pierre-Paul’s toughness.
But neck injuries are a different breed. Just ask Ryan Shazier, who is fortunate enough to walk after being partially paralyzed after what looked like a routine hit in a game two years ago. It wound up ending his career and it took him over a year to walk again.
Some football players aren’t as fortunate. Broken legs and arms can be operated on and heal. Knees and shoulders can also be surgically repaired. But it’s not often that football players recover from paralysis, and the fear of that happening to Pierre-Paul with one bad hit has to be in the back of his mind.
I wouldn’t blame him for having that awful thought present in his head.
But can he block it out and have faith that he will be okay returning to his old ways of hard-hitting football as a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher?
The Bucs certainly hope so.