In NFL, Trauma Adds to Drama
This is the time of year in the NFL when everybody hurts.
Any team, any position, any given player.
"When you're on a roll, you can lose sight and think we're not dealing with injuries. But we are," says San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who'll take an eight-game winning streak into Sunday's game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. "We've dealt with them all year. It would be nice to keep some guys healthy this month."
As much as it is a marathon on the road to the Super Bowl, the season also is a war of attrition. The healthiest teams - or those who are best able to manage injuries - often win.
Searching for a reason behind the Minnesota Vikings' success? Sure, Brett Favre has helped ignite an 11-2 record. But the Vikings also have an NFL-low one player on injured reserve. And that didn't occur until last week, after linebacker E.J. Henderson suffered a broken leg during a Dec. 6 game at the Arizona Cardinals.
In pro football, injuries are always the big X factor as the postseason puzzle formulates.
After a 4-1 start, the Atlanta Falcons have lost six of their past eight games and head into Sunday's contest at the New York Jets with slim hopes for a wild-card berth.
Even worse, their offense's biggest producers - quarterback Matt Ryan (turf toe) and running back Michael Turner (ankle) - seem likely to miss their third consecutive games.
"It's tough when you're playing against a good team and the guys who have been playing all year are not there," tight end Tony Gonzalez said after a 34-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles two Sundays ago. "We don't want to make excuses, but it's true. When guys come in who haven't played much, they're getting their feet wet."
As of Wednesday 236 NFL players were on injured reserve, the season-ending list containing the most serious setbacks. That projects to the lowest season IR total in four years, which might reflect how rules changes and other safety measures within the league are having an effect.
Standouts dot IR lists
Even so, there are enough game-changing stars lost for the year that one could compile an all-IR team including Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher (broken wrist), Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis (concussion) and Jets defensive tackle Kris Jenkins (torn anterior cruciate ligament).
Although some teams have been hit harder than others, all can relate. The Eagles are on their fifth middle linebacker, a trail that began when emerging star Stewart Bradley tore a knee ligament the first week of training camp. The Miami Dolphins are in the playoff hunt despite losing quarterback Chad Pennington (torn shoulder capsule), running back Ronnie Brown (fractured foot) and nose tackle Jason Ferguson (torn quadriceps) to season-ending injuries. The Indianapolis Colts (13-0) have five players on IR, including all-pro safety Bob Sanders (torn biceps), but headed into Thursday's game at the Jacksonville Jaguars with 29 players on their weekly injury list.
The other undefeated team, the New Orleans Saints, saw its secondary get hit hard enough that veteran cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister were signed last month and immediately put into the lineup. McKenzie had a key interception and fourth-down pass breakup near the goal line vs. the New England Patriots on Nov. 30 - one week after he was signed.
The next week at the Washington Redskins, the newcomers were still learning the playbook.
"There's a few things that came up in the ballgame on a real short turnaround that Mike and Chris and some other new guys hadn't been through with us before," Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said.
The Saints, who released McAlister last week and list McKenzie as a backup, have 13 players on IR. That's tied with the Detroit Lions for second-most in the league after the Buffalo Bills' 16. That they have thrived despite such a busy training room is another component of a spectacular season. New Orleans aims for its 14th victory Saturday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
"Injuries are a big reason why teams are so inconsistent now, compared to a few years ago when I was in Dallas," says former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, a back-to-back Super Bowl winner in the early 1990s. "With the salary cap and free agency, you just don't have the depth. But the better-coached teams can overcome injuries so much better than others."
NFL Network's Jamie Dukes says the Colts and Saints are better equipped to withstand injuries - other than to their quarterbacks - by design.
Even with Sanders out and all-pro defensive end Dwight Freeney missing three games because of quadriceps and abdominal injuries, the Colts entered the week tied for allowing the second-fewest points (217) in the league. Dukes, who played 10 seasons as an offensive lineman, says the stingy bottom line is tied to a philosophy he calls "Rent-A-Defender" as the Colts have rotated so many players through the defense over the years.
"Besides Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, they are not so dependent on one or two guys," Dukes says. "The Colts will pay big money for a Dwight Freeney, but a lot of the other pieces they've plugged in and out. But everybody can't be built like that.
"The Giants and Steelers, they're a lot thinner," Dukes said. "The injuries to (safeties) Kenny Phillips and Troy Polamalu, that's been the difference."
The absence of Polamalu, who starred on two Super Bowl teams but has missed eight games with knee injuries, has been particularly glaring for the Steelers. Pittsburgh (6-7) has blown fourth-quarter leads in five of its losses without him.
On Sunday, the Cowboys were jolted when all-pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware suffered a sprained neck after he collided with a Chargers lineman. Tests revealed no structural damage, and Ware was working out alongside the practice field Thursday.
The Chargers need not be reminded of the impact that injuries to key players can have at the wrong time. Two seasons ago, San Diego lost the AFC title game at New England when its big three offensive stars - Rivers, then-NFL rushing leader LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates - hobbled in with severe injuries.
Rivers gutted it out on a gimpy left knee despite having arthroscopic surgery days before the game. Tomlinson lasted a handful of plays because of a sprained left knee. Gates, two weeks removed from dislocating his left big toe, was very limited.
This season, the Chargers were struck by an early injury rash. Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick (ankle surgery) hasn't played since the opener at the Oakland Raiders. That same game, Pro Bowl nose tackle Jamal Williams was lost for the season with a torn triceps. It began an epidemic that forced the Chargers to employ four starting defensive line combinations. This was in addition to injuries forcing extensive shuffling among seven linebackers.
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera says the defense has survived in part because of adjustments that fit the available personnel. Some blitzes and coverages, Rivera says, are "based on who's out there."
Meanwhile, coach Norv Turner found the bright side after seeing backup inside linebackers Tim Dobbins and Brandon Siler make big plays during a pivotal goal-line stand Sunday at Dallas.
"We've had to play a bunch of guys who normally wouldn't have had opportunities to play, and those are the guys who are helping us now," Turner said. "We've gotten some guys back. So it's probably made us a stronger and deeper team."
Some coaches and personnel people, Johnson says, think hard about this time of year in weighing a prospect's injury history into draft strategy.
"If you find a guy who didn't spend any time in the training room, that was always a check mark for us," Johnson said. "One injury leads to another."