The rash of injuries to high-profile players overshadowed last weekend’s NFL action.
To see Reggie Wayne tearfully coming to grips with a torn knee ligament that ended his season was sad for more than just Colts fans. Wayne is among the most respected players in the sport.
Knowing that Brian Cushing, the heart of the Houston defense, was gone for the second straight year with a knee injury was hard to fathom. Nobody plays harder or with more vigor.
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And Sam Bradford, finally beginning to look as though he could become a franchise quarterback, having his season end with a torn ACL was gut-wrenching.
“It’s the luck of the draw if you get hurt badly,” says Bill Polian, who built the Bills and Colts into Super Bowl teams. “All during our time with the Colts and Bills we did extensive studies.
“You study injuries over a long period of time, you find the process is always the same: Injuries ramp up until Week 9 or Week 10 and tend to level off. Why? I don’t know. It’s the history of it.”
It’s also something teams must prepare for, and not only on the field. Yes, it’s crucial to build depth, although that’s becoming near impossible at some positions, notably quarterback, where the drop-off from starter to backup is often immeasurable.
It’s also important to build in safeguards under the salary cap to account for injuries. Of course, when there is an epidemic at a specific position, even that extra spending room doesn’t help much.
“You find it very difficult and rare, maybe once every four or five years, that you get a complete 53-man team,” says Polian, who would set aside from $3 million to $5 million under the cap while with the Colts to account for injuries. “It’s almost impossible to do on an ongoing basis.
“Eventually, the salary cap forces you to discard players. When you are in a position when you do not have that kind of (deep) roster, if you have catastrophic injuries to key players, you won’t recover.”
So which injuries thus far this season have had or will have the most impact?
Bradford would be at the top because he seemed to be making strides. The No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 draft will be replaced by journeyman Kellen Clemens.
Jay Cutler would be next most meaningful, and his absence comes when the Bears have Green Bay, Detroit and Baltimore ahead after their bye.
A rookie also would make the list, Buffalo’s EJ Manuel. The Bills appear to be building something solid in upstate New York, but judging how good they can be is impossible until Manuel recovers from his knee injury.
Throw in Robert Griffin III’s slow recovery from his offseason knee surgery, which held back the Redskins in a weak division.
MOST DAMAGING: Cutler, because the Bears aren’t contenders without him, as enigmatic as he might be.
A big group here, led by Julio Jones and Reggie Wayne.
When the Falcons pulled off their huge trade in 2011 to get Jones as their game-breaker, they envisioned an unstoppable offense. Jones would be the deep threat who made everyone else more dangerous.
This season, even with Jones in the lineup, the Falcons were struggling. Now that he’s done for 2013, can they even imagine themselves as a contender?
Thankfully for Indianapolis, the Colts still can be that even without Wayne, but it will be difficult. His leadership on and off the field will be missed as much as his production catching passes from Andrew Luck.
Add in the uncertainty surrounding Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, which has helped turn Tom Brady into a 55 percent passer and made teams less fearful of New England’s offense.
MOST DAMAGING: Jones. The Falcons were one short step from the Super Bowl last year thanks greatly to him. They are also-rans now.
David Wilson’s neck problem has left the Giants with little in the backfield. Same thing for Dallas with DeMarco Murray fighting knee issues, Atlanta minus Steven Jackson (hamstring), Houston with Arian Foster hobbled (thumb, chest, hamstring), and Pittsburgh, which didn’t win when rookie Le’Veon Bell was sidelined with a foot problem.
MOST DAMAGING: Bell, because with him the Steelers likely don’t fall into an 0-4 hole that they will spend two months digging out of. At least he’s back.
Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey, Tampa Bay guard Carl Nicks, Denver tackle Ryan Clady, Green Bay tackle/guard Bryan Bulaga, and Seattle tackle Russell Okung all are key ingredients in what their teams want to do with the ball.
MOST DAMAGING: Don’t laugh, but it’s Clady, despite the Broncos’ thus far record-setting offense. Peyton Manning’s blind side is just too valuable and must be protected better the rest of the way.
When NT Vince Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo went down, New England lost two of its best players, particularly against the run. They both are leaders on the Patriots’ defense, and with the offense not as potent as usual, that’s bad news in Foxborough.
Cushing’s absence is bound to be a factor for the underachieving Texans as they try to rescue their season. Chicago run stopper Henry Melton and top linebacker Lance Briggs can’t truly be replaced. The Giants’ secondary has been a sieve without ballhawking safety Stevie Brown. Atlanta’s D has made few big plays while linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has been sidelined. Cincinnati will be hard-pressed to replace cornerback Leon Hall.
MOST DAMAGING: Wilfork and Mayo. New England might not have the horses on either side of the ball to make up for their losses.