Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
30 Nov 2005
by Will Carroll
There's probably a great statistical discussion to be had about whether 10-0 is luck or some indication of greatness. On the heels of a second Monday night game in Indy, Colts fans here in my home have gotten a bit ahead of themselves, comparing the team to everyone from the '72 Dolphins to the â€˜12 Apostles. One thing that should be noted is Hunter Smith's work on this team over the past decade. No, not the punter, but the Head Athletic Trainer with the same name as the punter. Part of the team's success has to be attributed to keeping the key players on the field. When there have been injuries, like Edgerrin James' ACL tear or Marvin Harrison's current hand injury, the medical staff has been able to keep them on the field or get them back to the field more quickly than expected. That improves the talent and as we all know, talent wins in the NFL. There's more to injuries in this league that the weekly reports or even what you see here in this column and it deserves more credit. Let's get to it:
Byron Leftwich has a broken ankle and it says something about his history that I had to do any research on this at all. Leftwich has played through so many injuries that he turns the definition of injury-prone on its head, making it some sort of odd positive. I actually wondered, when I heard the report, if Leftwich could play through it. The answer is no, he'll be out for at least a month. This isn't a non-weight bearing injury like he's played through in the past and the NFL is simply too fast to play stationary as he did back at Marshall. Leftwich should be able to return by the playoffs, once again paying some royalties to Willis Reed, who, by law, must be referenced when anyone makes a comeback from injury in a key situation. I'll leave it to the game analysts to tell us how David Garrard and his quickness will change the team down the stretch, but watching him play Sunday makes me excited to see the Colts and Jags play. (One more Colts note here â€“ Peyton Manning is healthy while Leftwich could have ended on the IR had the Jags not been ticketed for the playoffs. Switch that around, and it is the difference between the all-important bye-week and a wild card.)
Concussions â€“ surprisingly not part of this report today â€“ are only one consequence of the hits around the NFL. Jamie Martin learned this during his start Sunday, leaving the game after a blow to the head left him with blurred vision. That problem had cleared up by Tuesday, though the worry was that he had suffered a detached retina, a problem often seen in boxing. Martin was simply knocked cross-eyed (not literally) and out of a job after Ryan Fitzpatrick put on a clinic. Martin shouldn't have any long term health effects from the problem and a discussion with an NFL trainer told me that detached retinas aren't something we should expect to see. â€œThere's not the right mechanism,â€? he said. â€œBoxers get hit in the eye. At worst, QBs get hit in the jaw. Something has to happen in just the right sequence for something like a detached retina, so I was surprised when I saw [the initial Martin report.]â€?
Troy Williamson is playing the role of Mike Tice's foolhardy fit victim this year. I won't deny that some players are malingerers, training room warriors who at the pro level aren't earning their paychecks. Still, that's what the medical staff is for, to tell the field staff who can play, who can't and who's limited. It's unclear if Tice is ignoring his medical staff or simply doesn't trust their judgment, but that's a clear sign of a problem in ths system. Williamson has a shoulder injury, but like last year with Mewelde Moore, Tice is angry that Williamson isn't going to take one for the team. Remember, this is the same team that lost Matt Birk to surgery because of the non-guaranteed nature of NFL contracts and an inability to give him any sort of stability. Without Birk, run blocking has crumbled. Last year the Vikings ranked ninth on runs up the middle and seventh overall in Adjusted Line Yards (a stat Football Outsiders uses to measure run blocking, explained here). This year, the Vikings are 31st up the middle and 27th overall. Maybe Tice is worth the trouble, but given all the injuries, external problems, and standings, I don't see it.
The reverse of this situation is Corey Dillon, who the Pats are allowing to heal fully before returning to the field, despite the team's running back problems. New England certainly has more political capital to work with given a couple rings and no sordid cruises, but it remains a surprisingly enlightened approach. Dillon seems to be targeted for a slow return, as the Pats seem to think that he's more important in the playoffs than he is for making it to the playoffs. It's a smart play from the injury side of the ledger and a risky one from the talent side. How it plays out might guide some other teams in future similar situations. What you should note is that once Dillon returns, he should be healthy and ready to look like the power/speed combo that the Pats need.
What's changed for the Baltimore Ravens? Since winning the Super Bowl a few years ago, nearly everything. Brian Billick is no longer lauded as an offensive genius, they've gone through numerous bad quarterbacks, and the injury situation has worn them down to a pale imitation of a team. The defensive backfield took another hit Sunday when Will Demps, their free safety, blew out his knee on a painful looking play. As with most ACL injuries, Demps will need surgery and will likely miss the great portion of next season. Demps is headed to free agency this off-season, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Players almost always return from ACL injuries predictably, so a team with a need at safety could grab Demps cheaply if they sign him, then stash him on the IR for a season. It's a creative strategy that has worked in baseball for pitchers recovering from elbow surgery (Chris Carpenter, for example) and could work here.
Some injuries look worse at the time they occur. We can all remember when players are braced and carted off, only to return the next week. Some, on the other hand, are much worse when the player comes out of the MRI. Brandon Jones, the Titans WR, injured his knee on a play just before halftime and honestly, it didn't look like much. He'd had problems with the knee in early November, so this could have been a re-injury situation, but watching him walk off the field gave no indication that he'd be headed under the knife and to the IR. It's a torn MCL, so Jones should be able to return by training camp, but his 2005 is done, much like the Titans', for all intents and purposes.
Defensive backs do so much cutting, stopping, twisting, and jumping that it's no surprise they have a high risk for knee injuries. The Seahawks have been happy with the play of free agent signing Kelly Herndon, another find from the MAC, but he'll miss at least two weeks after he came out of Sunday's game with a sore knee. The team did not release any details on the injury though seeing Herndon on crutches indicates nothing. The best guess is a Grade I sprain or mild cartilage tear. Herndon will cede the job back to Andre Dyson, the guy he took the job from when Dyson was injured a couple weeks back.
Facing Dwight Freeney is never fun for a tackle. Sure he's significantly smaller than the listed 260 and he has his inadequacies against the run, but to the tackle, he's a guy with a high-rev motor who's coming hard on every play, providing 50 opportunities to be humiliated on national TV. The task is hard enough for the best of the Big Uglies, but Marvel Smith had it even worse Monday night. Playing on a sprained ankle, Smith was able to play for a bit, but Freeney's speed forced a cascade to the opposite ankle, spraining that as well. Freeney or not, Smith was done for the night, forcing rookie Trai Essex to come in and try to protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. Smith is likely out for a couple weeks while he attempts to heal up. This may be a slight positive â€“ both ankles will now heal with rest rather than the continued cycle of re-injury caused by playing through it.
Depth is a key in the NFL. Every team is going to need to go down in depth chart during the season, sometimes deeper than they expected. The talent dropoff can be dramatic at times, especially at key positions like QB and LB if a team isn't watching its salary cap figures closely. Where teams can get into trouble is when there's a series of injuries at the same position, pushing the team further and further down. It can also result in some happy accidents, found talent uncovered by injury. When Ernie Conwell, the Saints' popular tight end, injured his knee, the team turned to Zach Hilton, who responded with some great outings. With Conwell headed for surgery, Hilton gets to audition for a starting role next season, wherever his team ends up.
Zach Thomas will play through a torn labrum. After a checkup with Dr. James Andrews, Thomas was cleared. He will be on a pitch count â€¦ Darrell Jackson now has an official return date: December 11 â€¦ It was a tough week for Ben Roethlisberger, and reader Natalie Bulger noticed his lack of set in the pocket. It's not the mobility he's missing, but the steady base for throws â€¦ We'll likely see Tyrone Calico play some this week, though he will still be limited by the strained calf â€¦ You know what I think happened in Seattle? The Sea Gals distracted the refs. Wow â€¦ People were very confused by my discussion last week about the â€œhardâ€? turf at Indianapolis. Yes, FieldTurf such as installed at the RCA Dome is softer than the old stuff, but it's still just carpet and a small bit of padding over concrete. It's not dissimilar from what many of us have in our own homes. Have a 300 pound man crush you into your own floor and tell me how soft it feels when you land â€¦ Congrats to Chris Gray of the Seahawks. My former high school teammate set a Seahawks record for consecutive games played.
Next week I'll be knee deep covering baseball's Winter Meetings for Baseball Prospectus. Pat Laverty, one of the original FO staffers and a former athletic trainer, will ably handle the space. I'll see you in a couple.
12 comments, Last at 01 Dec 2005, 12:34am by NYCowboy