New England Patriots' running back Danny Woodhead was barely a factor in the divisional-playoff takedown of the Houston Texans, but he is a key part of the Patriots' offensive consortium. His change-of-pace quickness and ability in the passing game mesh well with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.
A thumb sprain that came early in Sunday’s game kept him off the field for much of the team’s win, and the Pats are concerned about his availability against the physical Ravens defense in Sunday's AFC title game.
Woodhead hurt his thumb on the first play of the Texans game, according to New England head coach Bill Belichick (via ESPN). Exactly how he got hurt is unclear, though many times running backs can sprain their thumb by falling on it or having it pulled back by a defender attempting to strip the ball.
Woodhead was examined by the Pats' team doctors and returned to the field, but did not return to the game. Belichick said that Woodhead was available but wasn’t needed. The play of Vereen certainly made it possible for the Pats to keep Woodhead on the sideline and away from any further damage to his thumb. Vereen ended the game with 41 rushing yards on seven carries, augmenting that with five catches for 83 yards.
From what has been made public, it seems reasonable to assume that Woodhead’s sprain is mild (Grade I to I+), but the big concern with that type of injury and location is grip strength. (While this article by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons addresses knee sprains, the information on grading ligament damage holds true for any joint.)
For any running back, the ability to control the ball is key, especially in piles and with defenders attempting to pry the ball loose. Woodhead is going to have to show that Belichick should have faith in his ability to hold the ball or those touches and targets are likely to go back to Vereen.
This type of sprain is common in the NFL. While not identical, the injuries to Jay Cutler and Dez Bryant give us some information on how Woodhead may respond. Cutler’s thumb fracture and sprain in November 2011 ended his season. The complex nature of that injury required surgery due to Cutler’s inability to hold the ball. Bryant also had a significant sprain and fracture of a finger late this season, but was able to play through it effectively with therapy, pain killers and a protective glove. Woodhead’s injury does not involve any fractures, making the stability less of an issue.
Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and Football Outsiders.