While the popular opinion was hardly unanimous at the time, it was easy to see why the New England Patriots designated tight end Visanthe Shiancoe as their injured reserve player to return this season.
When Shiancoe missed virtually all of training camp with an injury, it made sense to keep him in the fold for the first half of the regular season, without having to use a roster spot on him. Free-agent pickup Daniel Fells had just come off the physically unable to perform list in late August, while Pro Bowl tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were important parts of the offense, assets in need of insurance policies.
It all continued to make sense when Shiancoe came off injured reserve in Week 10, as Hernandez still was making his way back from an early-season ankle injury. A week later, Gronkowski went down with a broken forearm. In either case, it was a perfect time for Shiancoe to step in, right?
Three seasons removed from posting a career-high 56 catches, Shiancoe wasn't able to find a fit within the offense in New England. Instead, it was Fells and in-season signing Michael Hoomanawanui who filled the voids left by Hernandez and, later, Gronkowski. Meanwhile, Shiancoe saw just late-game spot duty and was a healthy scratch two weeks ago against the Miami Dolphins.
After Shiancoe was waived by the Patriots on Tuesday, it's worth re-examining the team's decision to designate him to return.
When they made the Shiancoe transaction on Sept. 5, the Patriots had already shelved former Olympic sprinter Jeff Demps for the season. Signed as an undrafted free agent during the preseason, Demps may have been able to contribute as a kick returner this season, if healthy and prepared for the NFL. Procedurally, the Patriots could have delayed putting Demps on injured reserve until the first week of the season, in order to designate him to return instead of Shiancoe.
However, the Patriots were not required to use the designation when they did, before having played a regular-season game. Several teams waited until midseason to use it, and in the case of the Baltimore Ravens, it has kept the door open for linebacker Ray Lewis to return this season. Likewise, the Patriots could have designated Gronkowski to return after his injury in November, or on any other major player who figured to miss a significant chunk, but not all, of the season.
Clearly, it's an inexact science, and there is a risk-reward factor involved in waiting for a major injury to use the designation.
This is the first season the NFL has used the rule, and choosing Shiancoe the first time around has hardly hurt the Patriots. But it is a decision that coach Bill Belichick probably would like to have back, and it's a situation in which he may tweak his thinking for the 2013 season.