FREMANTLE captain Nat Fyfe's season-ending shoulder surgery should prompt the club to focus its attention on 2022 and resist the temptation to scrap for the final top eight spot at the expense of development.
The Dockers are two points adrift of eighth-placed Greater Western Sydney and significant percentage behind fellow finals contenders Essendon and Richmond, who are also on eight wins.
But injuries have taken their toll, with Michael Walters expected to miss the rest of the season with a hamstring injury and star ruckman Sean Darcy appearing hobbled by a knee complaint he has played through.
Fyfe, who has played in discomfort since his initial injury against the Western Bulldogs in round 12, will head to Melbourne to undergo reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder.
A joint decision by Fyfe and the Dockers was made quickly to head for surgery after the Sydney loss on Sunday and avoid the risk of doing any further damage to his shoulder.
The decision will buy the dual Brownlow medallist an extra month of recovery time and, all going well, allow him to return for the 2022 pre-season with full mobility and strength.
In addition to Fyfe and Walters, the Dockers didn't want to risk sending key defender Alex Pearce back out against Sydney following a head knock, which doesn't bode well for his chances against Richmond this week.
The Dockers injury list already includes first-choice defenders Brennan Cox and Joel Hamling, forward/ruck Rory Lobb, and promising youngsters Heath Chapman and Sam Sturt.
With constant injury setbacks no doubt contributing, the list has proven to be short of the competition's better teams, with a 2-7 record against the current top eight. Development in young players is needed to bridge that gap.
Clashes at Optus Stadium against the Tigers, Brisbane and West Coast loom before finishing the season against St Kilda, and the prospect of winning all of those games with the injuries that they have is incredibly slim.
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The Dockers could go for it, using the hardened players they have in reserve in their best positions, or they could learn as much as possible about their list and shape their promising future.
Tough first-year midfielder Nathan O'Driscoll, 19, is yet to debut and would benefit immensely from four games at the top level going into his second pre-season, gaining the opportunity to test his workrate and tackling pressure against AFL opponents.
Likewise, 18-year-old speedster Joel Western could build on his one game at senior level, against Gold Coast in round 13, and learn now what it takes to transfer his evasiveness and goalkicking nous to the next level.
Third-year midfielder Luke Valente has returned to South Australia on personal leave, but a debut should be worked towards in the final month if he is able to return to the club.
At the other end of the spectrum, Connor Blakely has spent this season as a perennial medical substitute, giving him limited time at AFL level and even fewer opportunities to build form in the WAFL.
Blakely, 25, has helped the team by taking on the role, but it could not be said that it has helped his career. Give him the chance to play four games as an inside midfielder and prove his worth, either to Fremantle or a rival club.
Small forward Liam Henry is seen as a future wingman by the Dockers and can get a taste of the role for longer periods, even if it will test him physically in what has been an impressive second season.
And ruckman Lloyd Meek can step out of Darcy's shadow for a month if there is more to the star big man's knee complaint.
Fyfe has been a star in 2021 and pushed hard to play through his initial shoulder dislocation and lead his team back to finals.
That no longer looks possible, but if the Dockers turn more of their focus to development there is much left to gain in the final four rounds without him.