FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Dane Fletcher views football, and life, differently these days.
Simply surviving the New England Patriots final roster cuts is no guarantee a player will be around for long. And being sidelined for a full season doesn't mean a player can't keep learning the game.
As those cuts were approaching two years ago, the undrafted linebacker asked an assistant coach about his uncertain status. That's when the rookie free agent from Montana State learned a valuable lesson.
"The coach is like, 'Dane, one thing you've got to learn right now is that you never made the team, especially around here. You could be gone tomorrow. Even if you make the team today, you could be gone tomorrow,'" Fletcher said. "That hit home. I was like, 'All right, so I made the team for today and I'll come into work tomorrow.' That's how you look at it."
That optimistic outlook has served Fletcher well, though he didn't have to worry about being among the team's cuts when they reduced their roster from 75 to 53 players — as long as he stayed healthy.
He was expected to see more time on defense and play a vital role on special teams but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the opening quarter of the Patriots' first preseason game. He was placed on injured reserve two weeks ago.
Facing surgery next week, Fletcher's attitude remains positive.
"Not even to be able to get out there with your guys in the regular season and what not, it hurts," he said. "But, you know, I look at everything positive and at least it kind of happened early in the year, so I have a full year to recover and be back for next year."
The 25-year-old Fletcher started at linebacker for the injured Brandon Spikes against the New Orleans Saints on Aug. 9 and was hurt while running down the field trying to make a tackle on punt coverage.
The next week was a tense one, just as the final roster cutdown day was two years ago.
Shortly after the injury, the Patriots placed Fletcher on waivers, allowing any team to claim him. A day later, he was put on injured reserve.
He said it didn't make sense for another team to claim him because he's injured and in the final year of his contract. Yet he understood why the Patriots made the move.
"I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't nervous for 24 hours," Fletcher said, "just for the fact that you might have to pick up and move, and that'd be a tough transition in that kind of situation."
When the ordeal was over, Fletcher voiced his relief, tweeting, "Whewww glad to still be a Pat!"
And for more reasons than not having to relocate.
Fletcher relishes the opportunity to remain in New England, where he can benefit from the teachings of coach Bill Belichick.
"Until I got here, I thought I knew football, and then I got here and I was like I didn't know anything about football. Shoot, I still learn more and more every day," he said. "Belichick does a great job at just breaking down formations, breaking down film for you and helping you understand the concepts of what teams do."
With more time on his hands, Fletcher is trying to make the most of it.
"Even when I'm out of here, I still come to meetings and what not just because I dig it. I love football," he said.
When he's not at Gillette Stadium, Fletcher watches games and film, breaking down formations and the work of opposing offensive coordinators.
"I think that's half of it," he said. "If you're out for a little bit of time, it's more the mental aspect of the game that people slow down on and don't pay attention to the details."
He's even teamed up with veteran linebacker Lofa Tatupu, the two mentally rehabbing together.
The three-time Pro Bowler with the Seattle Seahawks, who graduated from King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham and whose father, Mosi, played 13 seasons for the Patriots, was signed by the Atlanta Falcons in March. But he has a torn pectoral muscle and also is expected to be sidelined for the season.
Recently, the two were reviewing techniques and man-to-man coverage in Tatupu's basement, preparing as if they were suiting up for the next game.
"We just take whatever we can off each other and it's great," Fletcher said.
The injury may be a blessing in disguise for Fletcher. There is always more to learn in the NFL.
"Obviously, I want to be on the field," he said. "Sometimes you get caught up in the moment of just trying to rehab, take care of your body and stuff, instead of really harnessing in and learning the game.
"I look at this in the positive light and I kind of just say this is my year where I'm going to really just harness in and study the game and learn it from head to toe," Fletcher added.