With injuries a given in NFL, teams need to adapt
No one in the NFL is safe from injury, not even coaches: separate sideline collisions leveled Sean Payton of the Saints and Jack Del Rio of the Jaguars during recent games.
Perhaps it was fitting, actually, that Del Rio wound up needing a golf cart to get to and from practice after being accidentally taken out by an opposing punter. After all, Jacksonville has been harder hit than any team this season, according to STATS LLC, leading the league in two dubious categories through Week 9: player-games missed by injury (102) and players placed on season-ending injured reserve (13). So even if the Jaguars haven’t lost top-of-the-line starters, perhaps it’s no surprise they’re 2-6.
”Think of it this way: The more backup players you’re forced to use, it really limits your ability to do everything you want to do,” former NFL player and head coach Herm Edwards said in a telephone interview. ”There’s a reason they’re backup players.”
It’s quite clear that a team’s ability – or inability – to carry on despite injuries is as significant a factor as any in determining success in the NFL. Just look at the Indianapolis Colts without four-time MVP Peyton Manning.
Every season from 2007-10, more than 300 players went on IR, according to STATS, with a high of 394 last season, an average of more than 12 per club. More than 210 players are on IR so far in 2011.
”You have to prepare your team to adapt. In football, injuries are a part of it. You know you’re not going to keep the same team throughout the year because of the physicality of this game,” said linebacker London Fletcher, whose Washington Redskins followed a 3-1 start with a four-game losing streak that coincided with injuries to several starters on offense. ”This is a violent game. It just happens.”
Like the Jaguars, the Houston Texans and New York Giants have been plagued by guys getting hurt in 2011. Unlike the Jaguars, those two teams keep on winning.
The Texans (6-3) lead the AFC South despite having 12 players on IR and ranking third in the NFL with 99 player-games missed, including injuries to star receiver Andre Johnson (five games), leading rusher Arian Foster (two) and 2006 No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams (out for the rest of the season).
So how do you overcome that?
”You try to acquire as much talent as you can, so that your depth is there, so you can withstand some of that stuff. Our guys who’ve come in and gotten opportunities have made the most of those opportunities,” Houston general manager Rick Smith said.
”We talk a lot about, `How do you replace Andre Johnson?’ for example,” Smith said. ”You don’t replace him with one player. It’s incumbent on the rest of the players to step up when you’ve got a star player who’s not out there.”
The Giants (6-2), meanwhile, top the NFC East, even though their IR count is up to 11.
New York’s 100 player-games missed – which STATS LLC calculated by counting players on IR, plus players listed on the official injury report during the week who didn’t play in the following game – include such defensive stalwarts as Justin Tuck (four games) and Osi Umenyiora (three), starting cornerback Terrell Thomas and rookie defenders Prince Amukamara and Marvin Austin – none of whom has appeared in a game this season.
”Some of it is a testament to the guys upstairs for really building some great depth here and getting guys who are not afraid to play,” Giants backup defensive end Dave Tollefson said.
”I would say it’s directly connected to guys in backup roles that are excited to contribute. That’s always been the case here,” he added. ”When I was in Oakland … sometimes you would get the feeling that maybe this guy would be stealing. Ain’t nobody stealing here. Everybody is willing to work.”
The Kansas City Chiefs (4-4) are tied for first place in the AFC West, somehow managing to get by after losing tight end Tony Moeaki in their final preseason game, safety Eric Berry in Week 1, and running back Jamaal Charles in Week 2 – all to torn left knee ligaments.
That all happened after linebacker Brandon Siler, who was likely to start, went down in training camp with a torn Achilles tendon.
”You just put your pads on every Sunday and hope for the best,” Chiefs defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. ”It’s definitely been a roller coaster.”
At the low end of the success-dealing-with-injuries spectrum are teams such as Fletcher’s Redskins – who’ve been struggling without their most dynamic playmaker and best wideout Santana Moss, starting running back Tim Hightower, Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley, and assorted offensive linemen, too – and the Indianapolis Colts.
The Redskins’ biggest problem isn’t related to health: Washington’s choices at quarterback are Rex Grossman and John Beck, the two lowest-ranked QBs in the NFC.
The Colts, though, are without Manning, sidelined all season after neck surgery. They’re also without a victory so far.
Among the others absent for Indianapolis are defensive captains Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt. Until last Sunday, the Colts were trotting out an offensive line deprived of three projected starters, and they shifted a fourth to a different position.
”There are two key factors that determine how big a deal it is: how severe the injuries are, and what positions are getting injured. Obviously we all know that if the quarterback goes down for a long time, you’ve got a problem,” said Edwards, who coached the Jets and Chiefs and now appears on ESPN.
”As a coach, you’re nervous – you’re always nervous – about injuries. You’re just hoping it’s not catastrophic,” he said. ”If you get injured at left tackle, you’re OK, because you’ve got eight linemen on the roster and you can adjust. But then if you lose that left tackle and a center and a starting guard, now you’ve got problems. No one has that many guys.”
During the last Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers lost two key players, cornerback Charles Woodson and receiver Donald Driver, yet managed to win the championship. They were well-prepared to deal with that sort of thing, having placed a daunting total of 17 players on injured reserve over the course of the 2010 season.
”A lot of guys that we had to call on last year,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said, ”were guys that you’d never heard of.”
High as Green Bay’s total was, it ranked tied for sixth most in the league. Plus, significantly, quarterback Aaron Rodgers never had to go on IR. He did miss one whole game and half of another in December, however, and the Packers lost both.
But consider this: Green Bay went without both starting inside linebackers, Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar. It turned out that their replacements, A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, were so good that Barnett and Chillar are no longer on the team.
”Our guys know that they’ve got to be ready and they’re one play away from playing. … We place a great deal of emphasis on the preparation aspect of it, that when your time comes you have to be ready,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
He pointed out the importance of using the draft not only to find Pro Bowl-quality talent, but also, as Capers called them, players who ”fit into (a) system and buy into what you’re doing.”
That allows teams to accumulate backups who can contribute when needed, flourishing instead of merely filling a role.
Fletcher thinks the current season was particularly tough for developing depth properly because the lockout eliminated organized workouts and other time for getting new players up to speed.
Fortune also can play a role, both in terms of whether a team’s players are involved in ”freak happenings,” as Chiefs coach Todd Haley described how some injuries come about, and which particular players are sidelined.
The Chicago Bears (5-3), for example, had put a league-low one player (TE Kyle Adams) on IR as of Wednesday afternoon, STATS said. And the Atlanta Falcons (5-3) had a league-low 24 player-games missed.
While the Jaguars’ sheer number of injuries is troubling, general manager Gene Smith actually considers his team to have been ”fortunate with our health,” because ”the guys we’ve lost are role players.”
Said Washington’s Moss, who’s missed the last two games with a broken bone in his left hand: ”Some teams are lucky, some teams aren’t. Some get around injuries better than others when you do get `em. And everybody’s going to get `em.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J.; Chris Duncan in Houston; Chris Jenkins in Green Bay, Wis.; Mark Long in Jacksonville, Fla.; Michael Marot in Indianapolis; and Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo., contributed to this story.
Get in touch with Howard Fendrich at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich