The NFL playoffs finally heat up, as a wild finish in Dallas and a tight game in Kansas City go some way to making up for the blowouts that preceded them.
28 Dec 2005
by Will Carroll
Thursday was the ultimate injury. The entire NFL was shocked by the death of James Dungy, son of Tony Dungy. It's a testament to the popularity of the soft-spoken coach that two towns and an entire team mourned with him, an extended family. Teams often rally around events like this and find solace in claiming destiny. I won't pretend to know what the Dungy family has gone through despite a similar unexpected loss, but I know there will be a hollow spot that no game, no win, and no ring can ever hope to fill. I do know as well that life will go on, that we will play games, that someone will win, and that someone will have a ring when we close out this season. It's been that kind of year across the NFL, one where disappointment and loss color even the best of teams, where an institution like Monday Night Football can vanish from the landscape, but we still watch life go on. I'm happy to have shared this year with you and thank you for reading. Let's get to it:
Last year, LaDanian Tomlinson finished out the season despite a nagging groin injury. This year, it's a nagging rib problem that's held him back at the tail end of the season. Is Tomlinson someone that can't make it through the long season under the workload that Marty Schottenheimer puts on him or is it simply bad luck? It's a bit of both. A fatigued player, even one as talented and conditioned as Tomlinson, is more likely to be injured. The drop of the Colts coincides with the reduced role of Edgerrin James, something that can be seen around the league and year after year. My pal Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus once compared kickers and closers; maybe running backs are like starting pitchers, only able to take so many carries over the course of a game and a season. Is there a football equivalent of a pitch count, more complicated than Aaron Schatz's "370 carries" theory? That goes on the list of things to look at this off-season.
One phrase that comes up and is often confusing due to lack of context and explanation is â€œgame shape.â€? As Tedy Bruschi was helped off the field Monday night, John Madden wondered if Bruschi's comeback was â€œtoo quick to get him into game shape.â€? I'll leave the making fun of Madden to Frank Caliendo and Scott Long, but this is simply ludicrous. Bruschi came back after a stroke in large part due to his incredible physical conditioning. He'd been playing in games for several weeks until this injury and in none of those was his â€œgame shapeâ€? questioned after the first couple and only then because people were a bit scared about the possible downside of this comeback. Game shape has no intrinsic meaning. It's merely a convention of saying that a player is capable of the broad range of functions required at his position, a set of skills that is far different for Bruschi than it is for say Tom Brady or Richard Seymour. Some NFL players might be morbidly obese by some standards, slow, or even medically disabled; when they're in the lineup, they're in game shape. As for Bruschi, there's no truth to the rumor that the Pats will say that â€œit's only a flesh woundâ€? this week. Bruschi got legwhipped by Mike â€œTDâ€? Vrabel during a punt and appears to have some type of deep bruise on his lower leg. He wasn't limping at some points, yet was reported to be limping as he got to the bus afterwards. Sources tell me that the injury was never even considered to be a fracture and that Bruschi is likely to play just enough to test the leg in Week 17.
If you could pick an injury that would raise eyebrows across the widest swath of Titans fans, it would be any sort of injury to the chest of Steve McNair. Many in that population were worried â€“ rightly so â€“ that McNair might never recover from controversial surgery to fix his chronically painful sternum, but he made it through nearly a complete season without problem. When a strained pectoral effectively ended his season this week, many are wondering if there's any connection, any problem that they'll have to worry about this off-season. Simply put, no. This injury may be geographically connected, but there doesn't appear to be any other relationship. McNair may never return to his peak form, but he was able to show that he could still be effective and reasonably healthy. Given his struggles over the past few seasons, outside of the win column and this late season injury, McNair should look back at 2005 and smile. (Late word says that McNair may start. I don't understand the value in that.)
One of the least replaceable parts in the NFL is the offensive tackle. Most teams have a tolerable backup QB, a couple RBs that can carry the load in the short term, and a rotation of sorts at most defensive positions, but tackles always seem to have a steep cliff dropoff to their backup. In the modern game built around speed, the massive bookend tackles remain one of the most rare commodities and extras are a luxury the salary cap has prevented. The Bucs head into the playoffs with a win, so losing Kenyatta Walker to an ankle injury is pretty big. Todd Steussie was able to fill in, a luxury few have. But while he's no Orlando Pace, Walker is clearly the better player when healthy. Given his chronic knee problems, injuring an ankle is likely to have Chris Simms scrambling throughout the game against the Saints.
The scenarios for the Redskins making the playoffs are a bit complex. They're in with a win and take the division with a Giants loss, but without Mark Brunell, that all-important win gets a lot more difficult. Brunell has a sprained MCL and is at best a coinflip for Sunday's game. Patrick Ramsey is likely to see the bulk of the playing time against Philly, though Brunell's age and questionable status for next season might push him and the team to put him in a situation where he could play more than a normal, younger, more valuable QB might not. Players at the end of their careers put themselves through things that others don't in hopes that they can retire with a ring. If he plays, he'll have to be a bit more stationary than normal, putting pressure on the line and the offense.
It's interesting to watch the course of an injury over a season. Deltha O'Neal is an interesting example. The ballhawk corner had a great first half, then injured his knee in late September and losing that step hurt him for about a month. Once he recovered more, he was back to picking the ball out of the sky and harassing opposing QBs. Now, O'Neal has reinjured that knee and while he's expected to be ready for the playoffs, he's not likely to get significant time in Week 17. A healthy O'Neal is one of the keys to the Bengals success this season, so that loss of a step is perhaps the difference between making the playoffs and doing something once they get there.
The Bengals are not just headed for the first playoffs since glaciers covered Ohio; they're also way under the salary cap. Now, I may hate math, but I love salary cap rules. It's a personal quirk of mine. With $20 million to spend this off-season, the Bengals have plenty of room to plug any holes, sign some players long-term, and to offload some players if they need to. Right now, the Bengals are likely to let Carson Palmer get plenty of rest for his sore groins. Yes, both sides are slightly strained and while he's expected to play, he's not expected to play long. Palmer's biggest task is prepping for the Bengals playoff game; he'll spend as much time in the training room as he will the film room. You decide which is more important.
For all the heat that the Pats take for their injury list, you could probably look at every other team in the league much the same way. â€œHe's good,â€? Jack Del Rio said about Greg Jones a couple weeks ago, only to see the young RB go inactive last weekend. Jones is still bothered by significant swelling and pain in his neck, something that has to be taken seriously. Jones is not likely to play much, even if he's active, given Fred Taylor's availability and Del Rio's preference for LaBrandon Toefield near the goal line. What the injury does is force the Jags to look hard again at Taylor, who has one year left on his deal, and wonder if they have his replacement already or if they'll be looking into the draft.
One of the odder phrases I picked up this week was during a call on DeAngelo Hall. â€œHe'll be ready for the Pro Bowl,â€? one source said. I'm not really sure what this means. The Pro Bowl is a nice honor, but does anyone really take that game seriously enough to not feel a bit sore? Hall dislocated his shoulder on Saturday, a painful injury that can have some long term consequences, but all signs point to this being a self-reducer (meaning it popped right back in) and as minimal as this serious injury can be. I wouldn't expect Hall to have many problems when the 2006 season starts up.
The Texans may get a shot at Reggie Bush, but whether they take him or not will depend on not only the new GM and coach, but on Domanick Davis and his knee. The RB has been dealing with cartilage problems and the resultant inflammation all season, in addition to the normal wear and tear a running back takes. Even a surgical fix isn't so bad for Davis since Bush isn't the typical running back that might push him out of a job, more likely to split time between RB and WR, forcing whoever gets him to figure out how to best utilize him. You can see that thinking outside the box is tough for most coaches when you look at players like Michael Vick, Antwaan Randle El, and Matt Jones.
There are a lot of playoff bound players that will skip Week 17 with some minor injuries. I won't list them here, but just note that anyone not fighting for a spot â€“ either in or out â€“ is likely to keep their more valuable players on the sideline â€¦ Byron Leftwich has been cleared to play on Sunday. Not that I said that here first a couple weeks back or that I have anything new to add â€¦ Mike Anderson is out this week, but could have played if necessary. He should be near full go after two weeks off â€¦ NFL players have a real life too and Marcus Stroud escaped off-field injury after his SUV flipped this week. He's lucky â€¦ One of the fun things about having a national column is being able to tell your cousin that you'll call him Biscuithead in print. Bet he'll believe me now â€¦ Charlie Frye has bruised ribs, a concussion and was sacked eight times last week. Romeo Crennel thinks Frye's comeback from this will show him something. The Browns should remind Crennel that this team sucks and Frye has some long-term possibilities â€¦ Ben Troupe's ankle sprain isn't serious, but combined with the injury to McNair, it makes him a very risky play in Week 17 â€¦ Michael Clayton is out this week, but did anyone but his momma notice?
I'll be back as necessary throughout the playoffs.
24 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2005, 1:36am by mactbone