Cardinals offense doomed by injuries this year

TEMPE, Ariz. – The NFL doesn’t track man-games lost to injury. That’s unfortunate, because that statistic would serve as a sobering and important reminder to critics of the Cardinals offense.

NFL coaches, executives and players are loathe to discuss the impact injuries have on their clubs lest they come under fire from media and fans for making excuses.

“That’s why you work to develop depth,” Cards center Lyle Sendlein said.

But this isn’t college, where you can accumulate such depth. There are practical realities at play in the NFL. Chief among those is the salary cap, which limits a club’s ability to pay for such depth. There are exceptional teams that manage to rise above injuries, like the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who had 15 players on injured reserve yet still won the Super Bowl.

But those teams are the rare exception. Most teams witness a significant drop-off in ability when reserves are forced into the lineup. Most teams suffer a severe drop-off in performance when starters go down.

That has been the case with the Cardinals’ banged-up offense. Injuries aren’t an excuse for the unit’s poor play, but injuries are a major factor that can not be ignored.

“It’s been a pretty tough year,” coach Ken Whisenhunt admitted. “Part of our continuity on offense is struggling because of that, but you can’t you use it as an excuse. You’ve got to move forward.

“Our guys are still fighting.” 

But is it a fight the Cards can win?

Already in 2012, the Cards have lost starting left tackle Levi Brown (triceps) and valuable reserve lineman Jeremy Bridges (thumb) for all 16 games. Quarterback John Skelton (ankle) has missed four games, and quarterback Kevin Kolb (ribs) will be out indefinitely, missing his first game Sunday in Minnesota.

Starting running back Beanie Wells (foot) will miss at least seven games before he comes off injured reserve, and running back Ryan Williams (shoulder) will miss the rest of the season, bringing his total to 11 games missed. Tight end Todd Heap (knee) has missed the past five games, tight end Jim Dray (knee) has missed three games, fullback Anthony Sherman (knee) has missed the past two and right guard Adam Snyder left Sunday’s game with a quad injury.

That’s not an injury list, it’s a casualty list. The absence of such key players makes it hard on the remaining players, because the talent level just isn’t there to withstand imperfect play.

“What we can’t do is make mistakes,” Whisenhunt said.

That’s what a coach must say. That’s what players must try to achieve. But it’s unrealistic to expect it to happen. And when the mistakes do come — like Skelton’s critical fumble in the red zone on Sunday or Jay Feely’s missed 47-yard field-goal attempt or Skelton’s pick-six — the mistakes are magnified because the Cards don’t have the ability, the remaining talent, to make up for them.

That makes it difficult to evaluate the offense and difficult to evaluate the coaching staff.

There are areas in which the organization deserves blame. The Cards’ refusal to build offensive line depth in the Whisenhunt era has come back to bite them this season, with inexperienced tackles D’Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie being thrust into roles for which they are ill-prepared.

Some believe the Cardinals were unwise to enter the season with two running backs coming off major knee surgery, but neither Wells nor Williams was felled by a knee injury this season. Their injuries were the fluky type that just occur in this game and, unfortunately for the Cardinals, happened to coincide. For those arguing that Wells has been injury-prone, keep in mind he had missed a total of five games in three seasons before 2012.

There is no telling how the NFL will play out from week to week, but a glance at the Cardinals’ remaining schedule does not inspire confidence that this club can make the playoffs or even post a winning record. The next three games are against San Francisco, at Green Bay and at Atlanta.

Few will remember – or care to remember – the injuries that hit the Cardinals offense this season when writing their post mortem. But when evaluating the staff and the players at the end of the season, injuries are and should be a key talking point.

“It’s just kind of a crazy year,” said Sendlein, noting the particular importance of continuity on an offensive line. “It just seems like it’s one thing after another, but we’re still trying to battle.”

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