Our offseason Four Downs series continues with a division-by-division look at each team's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. In the NFC North, quality wide receivers and defensive backs are in short supply.
05 Oct 2005
by Will Carroll
I'll admit that the game looks different to me since I began writing for Football Outsiders. I haven't watched as much over the past couple years, but watching plays with a DVOA filter in my head really changes things. Is that play really productive? Is the back gaining garbage yards at the end of the game? Watching the yardage-based numbers at halftime ends up telling me less than I thought Sterling Sharpe was telling me, when I can decode what he mumbles. What's really different to me is just how violent the game looks. Colts fever is catching here in Indy, but the play I remember is Bob Sanders laying the wood to Chris Brown in the first quarter. If Sanders had hit me like that, I'd be in adult diapers and drooling. Brown popped up and ran back to the huddle. Cris Carter might say that injuries are no excuse for losing, but I think they do explain a lot. Despite nearly ending up on the report myself this week with carpal tunnel, let's get to it:
It might seem that no one gets hurt more than quarterbacks. Not true, according to injury statistics, but you could argue that QB injuries are noticed more and affect a team more than any other. Of course, that could be argued as perception as well. Few would argue that losing Michael Vick wouldn't crush the Falcons, however. Despite reports that say Vick's MRI was negative, many of those same reports confusingly say that Vick has a sprained MCL. Combined with Jim Mora's crystal meth coaching style, it's unlikely that Vick will be reigned in, staying with the slashing, risky style that makes him both so dangerous and so frustrating. The MCL sprain is considered a "Grade I" â€“ ligament sprains come in three flavors, one through three, indicated by a roman numeral. You'll also see occasional references to a "II+" or similar, the plus indicating it's a bit more severe than the garden variety numeration.
Vick is hardly the only player running around on a damaged MCL. Daunte Culpepper has all that and more. (Can't you imagine some of these QBs at their so-called "Quarterback Club," comparing injuries in some sort of surreal poker? "I'll see you your MCL and raise a sports hernia!") Culpepper says he's a "warrior" that will play through a Grade I MCL strain as well as bursitis, a swelling of the small sac of fluid that helps cushion joints. With the bye week, Culpepper should have both time to heal and practice time to adjust his game if necessary. At worst, it will limit his mobility a bit but shouldn't affect his ability to do much else.
Injuries not only remove a player from the lineup or reduce his effectiveness, they test depth. In the modern short-roster NFL, that depth goes away quickly. It gets really bad for teams when they lose multiple players at the same position, forcing guys that were focused on punt coverage into the starting lineup. The Seahawks have two receivers, Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson, that are hurt more than the team is saying. Engram played the entire game Sunday with fractured ribs and while it's likely he can play, the pain is limiting him physically and mentally. Jackson has a sprained knee, likely another MCL injury â€“ yes, they seem to be on an uptick in the NFL â€“ and while he also played, he wore down as the painkillers wore off. Both will need rest and treatment to get back to an effective state. The Seahawks figure to limit their usage, hoping that Peter Warrick can take some of the load as he comes back from a groin strain. One signal that the Seahawks think the injuries are serious is the re-signing of WR Jerheme Urban. Teams often tip more with their actions than their press conferences.
Could Chad Pennington come back? The Jets say no, but there seems to be some confusion about whether or not there's a tear in his rotator cuff again. My sources tell me that the answer is no, mostly. There's definitely inflammation very near the repaired area, but magnetic resonance images are no subsititute for opening someone up and looking. Shoulders are especially tough to get definitive images on due to their structure. Add in that almost any QB is going to have some level of damage inside the joint due to hits and wear and you can understand why there's some art to sports medicine as well as science. Expect Pennington to miss much of the year as he attempts to strengthen the muscle rather than have a surgical repair that would end his Jets career, if not his football career. The specter of Don Majkowski is already being raised.
Someone has to get the ball to Carson Palmer. The Bengals, garish uniforms and all, have lost nearly everyone on the interior of their line. Rich Braham strained (say it with me) his MCL in Sunday's game, one that also saw offensive guard Larry Moore head to the injured reserve with a knee injury. The Bengals went with a lefty snapper for a while in OG Eric Steinbach, but the team thinks that Braham will be back. Braham played through a herniated cervical disk a couple years back, so he knows how to play with pain. Still. The Bengals may have to go with untested (and unpronounceable) rookie Eric Ghiaciuc if Braham isn't ready. The Bengals have to protect Palmer as well as get the ball to him, which will be a severe challenge given this series of injuries.
Palmer will also be wondering if Rudi Johnson will be lined up behind him all week. Johnson has been battling cartilege problems in his knee for much of the season. Johnson, another in the series of great backs that have come out of Auburn, may get his load reduced and some of his carries given to Chris Perry. Again, depth problems for the Bengals may be their undoing, forcing them to play players that are at less than 100% â€“ or as close to it as players get in-season â€“ which increases the risk of injury. Bengals sources expect a short passing game to be the focus of this week's offense, in essence shifting emphasis from a position of roster weakness to a position where there's more depth.
It's time to introduce an injury analysis term from my work in baseball over here. The term is actually borrowed from network science and is "cascade," a related series of failures. Too many times in injuries, we'll see one incident or injury lead to a change that leads to yet another injury. For example, Cadillac Williams was protecting an injured foot, using an orthotic insert that he'd only practiced with for a few days. Did that contribute to his hamstring strain? It's possible that his gait or stride was changed enough to contribute. Cascade injuries happen a lot, especially when NFL players try to fight through an injury that's reduced them to limping, painkillers, and improvised solutions. Williams' injury status is being closely guarded by the Bucs, but team sources expect him to play after a game-time decision. Over the longer term, these early season injuries may show that this Cadillac might break down under the NFL workload â€“ or they may save him enough carries to keep some gas in the tank.
The Packers are on full lockdown regarding the knee of Ahman Green. Green left the game with what was initially called a bruise. It didn't look bad when he stayed on the sidelines after the injury, but the ice had no effect on the swelling and further tests after the game showed â€¦ something. The symptoms and sources indicate that Green has sprained at least one ligament in his knee, while some reports have the problem in Green's quadriceps. Either way, it's unlikely that Green will be able to take the full load on Sunday, opening up carries for Najeh Davenport. Mounting injuries â€“ as well as a record that makes the Packers look more like my fantasy team than a contender â€“ could force some big changes in Green Bay sooner than many people think.
This one is up there for most painful appearing injuries of the season. Roland Williams, one of the Rams tight ends, dislocated his right knee against the Giants. It's clear that the turf had something to do with the injury, but this one was so freakish that it's hard to blame anything for this. Williams was carted off the field and is likely done for the season. Williams had previously hyperextended the knee, giving some sign that he had some laxity in there that may have contributed. Is that a cascade? Probably not, but I like how you're thinking.
It's always scary to see any player come off the field on a stretcher. It's been years since Daryl Stingley, but he always comes to mind when I see these types of situations. It's good to report that Terrence Murphy has movement in all of his limbs after a devastating hit on Monday night. Murphy still has lingering pain and weakness and could well be out for the season. It's important to remember how much worse it could have been if the NFL medical staffs weren't so prepared and trained for these worst-case scenarios â€¦ I don't follow college football much since leaving school, back when my school was good. After reading Allen Barra's The Last Coach, I've been watching Alabama. That of course led me to the gory Tyrone Prothro injury. You don't need me to tell you that's a career-ending injury â€¦ If you believed that Isaac Bruce was going to play last week, then keep believing that the Rams WR won't miss at least a couple more â€¦ If Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens keep playing this well with their sports hernias, how soon before all the cool kids want one of their own? â€¦ Charles Rogers down for a drug suspension? Hmm, is there a substance that weakens the clavicle? â€¦ Things that look unappetizing in a banner ad: Spaghetti and meatballs â€¦ Remember how Duce Staley was used as a decoy when he first returned for the Steelers? Expect similar treatment for Jerome Bettis.
I'm wrapped up in baseball playoff coverage at Baseball Prospectus, but not so wrapped up that I'm not looking forward to next Sunday. Colts-Niners? It doesn't get much better than that â€¦ Oh. I guess that Montana guy is gone. How about Young? No?
31 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2005, 6:41pm by Carl