“Maybe I was a step slower,” Hernandez said, “but I’m saying I felt pretty good and I’m looking forward to keep getting better.”
Hernandez was expected to play a large role in the offense this year after a sensational sophomore campaign last season, when he had 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.
Alongside Pro Bowl standout Rob Gronkowski, the talented third-year tandem quickly became one of the most feared in league history, combining for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns, all NFL records for a pair of tight end teammates.
But just weeks after signing a long-term deal that will keep him in New England (3-3) through 2018, Hernandez’s season was curtailed after just one game.
Watching his teammates from home wasn’t easy.
“Obviously it was tough, especially when you live to play football, been doing it your whole life,” he said. “You want to play, want to help the team. That’s the reason why I came back.”
Hernandez picked a perfect time to return, too, as the rival New York Jets (3-3) travel to town for a pivotal Sunday matchup that will leave the winner atop the AFC East.
“It’s just another game,” he said of the pending showdown.
Hernandez has a strong yet short history with the Jets. In four regular-season games, he has caught 18 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, helping the Patriots go 3-1.
Yet in a shocking 28-21 loss to New York in the 2010 playoffs, Hernandez was held to just one catch and four yards.
After signing veteran safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry this past offseason in part to defend against the Patriots’ potent pair, the Jets are hoping for a similar result.
“Both of these guys are good football players, they’re physical, they’re tough guys and they’re passionate players,” New York coach Rex Ryan said. “But specifically against Gronk and Hernandez, I don’t necessarily see that. I think on defense, you try to get 11 good football players on the field and that’s what we do.