FOXBORO, Mass. — Patriots right guard Stephen Neal will have a life-altering decision to make.
Neal seriously contemplated retirement last offseason because of the toll injuries took on his body, and he'll likely weigh the same type of decision in the coming months. The Patriots placed Neal on season-ending injured reserve Thursday with a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the last three games.
Neal, who turned 34 last month, is under contract through 2011, but he's battled through a series of injuries in the last few seasons. He was signed as a rookie free agent in 2001 but didn’t see any action, and was placed on injured reserve in 2002 and 2003.
He played in 16 regular season games just twice, 2004 and 2005, but he has missed 23 games since 2006.
When healthy, Neal had been one of the Patriots' most reliable and consistent offensive linemen, but he's been replaced at right guard by Dan Connolly, who has played in all 11 games this season after filling in on the left side for Logan Mankins. And due to Mankins' holdout and Neal's injury, the Patriots won't play a single game this season with their traditional set of starting offensive linemen.
The Patriots have gotten some great production out of their line this season, but their depth will be tested after the latest injury. The current crop of starters has performed pretty well, especially considering the circumstances around Mankins. But, already without Nick Kaczur, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this season, the Patriots have Ryan Wendell and Rich Ohrnberger as reserve interior linemen. And they've got Quinn Ojinnaka and Mark LeVoir as backup tackles.
Due to Connolly's production, it appears the Patriots will be able to move forward without Neal, but the biggest concern in this situation surrounds Neal's future.