When Bills top pass rusher Aaron Schobel exited Buffalo's lineup after about three quarters of play in Week 5 at Arizona last year, no one thought he'd miss the following week. After all, in eight seasons Schobel had never missed any one of the 117 games in his career to that point. But Schobel's injury was too severe to play on and he missed the final 11 games of the 2008 campaign.
And Buffalo's pass rush suffered noticeably. Buffalo had all of 24 sacks last season to rank 28th in the league. With Schobel in the lineup over the first five games the Bills had a respectable 10 sacks, and were on pace for almost 40 last year. Over the last 11 games however, with Schobel out of the lineup, they had just 14 more.
It wasn't until late in the season that it was fully revealed that Schobel had a LisFranc foot injury. Now recovered from the first major injury of his entire career, fans are wondering will he be the same Aaron Schobel?
Buffalo's coaching staff sounds confident.
"Aaron Schobel has done a good job getting back in and getting himself going," said defensive line coach Bob Sanders. "His intensity has looked good and he'll be ready to go. He's an excellent pass rusher and a very, very instinctive player."
"We anticipate Aaron will play with the same confidence, toughness, and production that we have seen on a consistent basis in the past, and missed last year once he left our lineup," said head coach Dick Jauron.
But what about Schobel himself?
Schobel still has supreme belief in his own abilities, and he remains confident that his foot will respond favorably when asked to drive his 6'4" frame up field. But he and everyone else are withholding judgment as to whether his foot will allow him to still be a consistent threat off the edge.
"As we go through camp and stuff I'm going to feel better especially from the explosion part from not doing it," said Schobel of driving off the healed foot. "You can't really train to be in football shape. You have to do the football stuff to get in shape for that. Through the spring I felt more explosive. So it takes time, but it's going to come back. But as far as it hurting it doesn't hurt."
Schobel admits that when he gets out of bed in the morning and stands up his foot feels stiff, but after about 10 minutes of walking around it's loose and feels the same as it ever did with no pain.
"I don't see it being a factor," he said.
What will be a factor in getting Schobel back on his game are all the doubters. There's a small contingent of Bills fans that have never been overly impressed with Schobel's game. The defensive end has heard the criticism. Despite being motivated enough all by himself on game day, Schobel plans to use some of that negativity to his advantage.
"If 100 guys tell me good game and the one guy at the end of the tunnel tells me I suck, all I think about is the guy that told me I suck and that's the kind of (stuff) that motivates me," he said. "That's what sort of got me where I am. I don't want to just be an average player. I want to feel like I'm one of the best if not the best and that's how I'm going to prepare and that's the mindset I'm going to take into it. Hopefully it works out that I prove people that think I'm over the hill wrong."
Of course Schobel has also said if he can't be the same player he has been then, "It's time to do something else."
Schobel understands his sack numbers dropped off after his first Pro Bowl season of 2006. And now getting back to double digit sacks could prove more difficult if his foot does not respond well to the daily pounding that it will take over the course of a 16-game season.
Nevertheless Schobel maintains he was playing some of his best football last season before the LisFranc injury in Week 4, and is determined to duplicate that play in 2009 with no excuses.
"When I played, I was playing pretty damn good," Schobel told Buffalobills.com. "I didn't have the stats to back it up. In my opinion I was playing as good as I've ever played. But now I guess I have to have the stats just to shut everybody up and that's my motivation."