Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Clutch Encounters: Week 4

Blowout week, but not for the Steelers. Do they play down to the competition? Also: bad Foles, Bridgewater's debut, and did J.J. Watt just end EJ Manuel's career in Buffalo?

30 Dec 2008

Black & Blue Report: December 30, 2008

by Will Carroll

Look, if Peter King keeps writing articles like this, he's going to put me out of business. But as much as Manning's story is interesting and as much as finally putting all the pieces together tells us as much about the Official Injury Report as it does about Manning, it's also something to consider when we talk about Tom Brady. After a worst-case scenario was spun by Tom Curran over the weekend, the news predictably got spun the other way. Brady and Manning are probably forever connected and perhaps the most comparable players for each other, so knowing how Manning's season progressed after a post-operative infection is very telling for Brady's recovery. Manning's second procedure, while successful, was significantly more advanced than what Brady has had, though Brady's ACL injury is worse than a bursa sac removal. Still, Manning took weeks, not months, to recover his form. While I have questions about his need for reps and prep time -- he looked pretty good in last year's Pro Bowl and honestly, if you dropped Manning onto the Jets instead of Brett Favre, do you think he would have looked worse? -- I don't have questions about how it was handled medically. Brady is getting the same quality of care, the same close watch by team staff, and has the same drive and physical base to work from. Yes, Curran accurately described the worst case, but there's no evidence that Brady is headed for that worst case. It's much like those disclaimers at the end of drug ads on TV. Most people don't get the four-hour erection that Viagra warns of, but I guess it's possible. In the end, a weekend full of talk about Brady ends up just that: talk. We don't know any more than we did on Friday and won't until Brady gets back out there (or in February, when the Pats have to decide on tagging Matt Cassel). Right now, there's no reason to doubt that he'll be able to play again and only slightly more that he might not get in a full training camp. Maybe Brady needs to sit down with Peter King and end the speculation. Then again, I'd be happy to sit down with him and Gisele.

Now, let's look at the injuries that will affect the playoff teams:

Colts at Chargers

If there was one moment that stuck out in the Colts-Titans scrimmage, it was that onside kick. Was that just putting the idea in Jeff Fisher's head or maybe, just maybe, was it a chance to see how the bump-and-trail style worked in a real game? Just sayin'. The Colts used the game to get some records and get healthy. Joseph Addai showed he was over the shoulder issue with a couple runs, Marvin Harrison showed he could run, and the rest was just time off. The key injury is Jeff Saturday, who may be a co-MVP for the team, and who got the game off to heal up a lingering calf strain. He won't be back to 100 percent this season, but he should be as good as he has been when the Colts get to San Diego. On the defensive side, Bob Sanders and Gary Brackett will be in the lineup. Brackett is more iffy than Sanders, but the Colts seem ready to spot him in if he's not 100 percent. The defensive system worked without him, though LaDainian Tomlinson is going to be more of a test.

Across the field, the Chargers are more healthy and it showed. Yes, they ran wild against a terrible run defense, but Tomlinson didn't show any signs of problems with his groin and Darren Sproles showed all the skills that let A.J. Smith think he could replace Michael Turner. The injuries that the team has had -- and by the way, anyone seen Shawne Merriman lately? -- all came pretty early in the season and allowed them to adjust to the current construction. There's no good time to have injuries, but having more than half the season to adjust does help both the cohesion of a unit and the coaching staff's necessary adjustments.

Ravens at Dolphins

The Dolphins spent all year telling us week after week that they had no injuries. It was thought to be mostly a Parcellsian maneuver, but here we are with the team in the playoffs and, well, no injuries. I'm not sure what they did in Miami that contributed to a near-mystical turnaround, but if there's an untold story in this reversal, this is it. That said, until I see some evidence, I'm going to consider this just an amazing run of luck.

On the Ravens side, they're at one of their healthiest points of the season and have been on an upswing. Willis McGahee is running well, but not being overtaxed with Le'Ron McClain taking those pounding runs that wear on McGahee. There's really no other major concerns for the team, which makes this matchup one that will be won on talent and maybe some trickery, the way it should be.

Titans, Steelers

The Titans used their backups to keep the starters healthy and it worked. It also showed that the Colts can beat the backups pretty soundly with their backups. I'm not sure if that means much if they meet up for a third game in the playoffs. The Titans have no real health issues to slow them down aside from the normal dings and bruises of an NFL season. LenDale White played enough to prove he was healthy and now gets a week off to be completely healthy.

The Steelers are a much different story. Willie Parker had a nice week, showing that he and Mewelde Moore will be a tandem for the playoffs. The big story of course is Ben Roethlisberger, who left on a cart with a concussion. Except he didn't. As he was wheeled off, the concussion was secondary to a possible neck injury. There was evidently pain and severe spasm in the neck and upper back from the whip Roethlisberger took as his head hits the ground. The neck is fine and with a week off, they should be able to get any residual pain out. With his shoulder and ankle still questionable, Roethlisberger hasn't played healthy in quite a while, but getting the percentage up is going to be Job One for the Steelers until kickoff, then it has to shift to protecting him.

Eagles at Vikings

363 isn't 370, but it's really close. Adrian Peterson is as key to the Vikings success as any player, especially if you want to define MVP by the way the team would perform without a particular player. (And if so, does that make Tom Brady less valuable? No.) There's no indication that Adrian Peterson is wearing down, which gives the Vikings a real chance in the playoffs. The quarterback situation is now on talent or at least perception, since Gus Frerotte is cleared to play. On defense, the return of Pat Williams is very unlikely for the first game, but beyond that, it's possible, though the NFL has informed the Vikings that a change in his legal status would cause a change in his availability.

The Eagles are really only worried about Brian Westbrook. The blowout allowed them to get him out of the game, but his knee is back to being as big a problem as it was back in '06 and he's simply not responding as well to the management. Westbrook should be able to go, but how much is the question. It's no knock on Correll Buckhalter to say that he's no Brian Westbrook. The wide receivers are dinged too, especially Kevin Curtis, who missed the first half while recovering and then spent the second half injuring everything else. DeSean Jackson is having the typical rookie fatigue-based injuries, but playoff adrenaline tends to overcome those.

Falcons at Cardinals

The Falcons made great moves last offseason and that, with a little luck, got them to the playoffs in just the first year post-Vick. Credit Matt Ryan, Mike Smith, Curtis Lofton, or Michael Turner, but the real key has been having all those new players actually out on the field. Give credit to Ron Medlin and his staff for giving this team a chance to play. There are no significant injuries and only the workload on Turner is an issue, but that's not until next year.

The Cardinals played their players in Week 17 more than most teams for a couple reasons. The most obvious is that they were trying to get some sort of momentum after seeming to lose focus after their early clinch. The other is that they're relatively healthy at key positions. The only major injury is to Anquan Boldin and he has had a couple weeks of light play intended to help him heal up. He's proven he can play through pain and come back quickly this season, so there's little reason to think that he won't play at a high level. Even reduced, the team is deepest at wide receiver and can use Boldin as a decoy if need be to get Larry Fitzgerald more open. Defensively, there are no key injuries.

Giants, Panthers

The Giants will use their week off to rest up their running backs. Brandon Jacobs got Week 17 off as well and should be ready to take a heavier load than he has, but Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw have been healthier and more effective, so the week off will help them as well. On defense, the team is healthy, and like the Chargers, the early season injuries have allowed them to adjust.

The Panthers got Jake Delhomme back and a running game to take the pressure off his rebuilt arm. The hidden story is the health of their line. When Jeff Otah is healthy, the team can run, and when he's not, not so much. A week off should help the Panthers as much as any team since they've been pushing through a high percentage of dinged-up players.

Bumps and Bruises

Instead of the normal notes, I want to throw an idea out there about a trend. It seems like virtually every team in the NFL has some sort of running back rotation. The Giants and Panthers are 1-2 in the NFC with very defined committees, just as the Titans have at AFC No. 1. The Steelers ended up with a rotation, as did the Colts, due to a combination of factors, including injury. In fact, almost every team save the Vikings have some sort of rotation, even the Chargers and Falcons. The idea, aside from stylistic differences which allow for differing plays and offensive looks, is to keep a running back healthy for this time of year. The problem is, it doesn't work. Most of those teams, have dealt with injuries at all slots of committees. In fact, it seems that there are more injuries to running backs. While workload at the extreme upper end is certainly something to be avoided, it's the hits that a running back takes and some unknown-as-yet genetic component of health, as well as a touch of luck, that is the determinant. On performance, it may well work and it's certainly easier to find a reliable crew than a modern workhorse.

Posted by: Will Carroll on 30 Dec 2008

20 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2009, 7:42pm by Will Carroll

Comments

1
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 4:27pm

LMAO "Most people don't get the 4 hour erection viagra warns of". I think you guys have a lot of really cheesy jokes, but you got a chuckle out of me on that one.

10
by Wong (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 6:49pm

All we needed was a "WASSUP!" reference and it would have been extra topical (and funny!).

2
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 4:35pm

You bring up the RB rotation trend. No most people on this site would agree that RB's are somewhat fungible ( unless you have a super star), so how do you feel about drafting/investing free agent resources ( dollars) into RB's?

Carolina has two recent 1st round draft picks running the ball. The Titans have two recent high round draft picks. The Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson after spending big free agent bucks on Chester Taylor. Pitt drafted Mendanhall after already having Willie Parker. Miami has two #2 overall draft picks running the ball. Baltimore has traded for Willis and still drafted Rice high.

The Giants are a clear exception to the rule, and Philly already has their star back. Arizona brought in Edge after drafting JJ Arrington high ( bust), but then they brought in hightower.

So in general, do you like allocating a lot of resources ( high draft picks/top FA dollars) to RB's, or would you rather use those resources elsewhere ( LT, DE, CB, WR, QB etc.)?

18
by The Ninjalectual :: Wed, 12/31/2008 - 7:44pm

Ricky Williams was drafted at #5.

3
by SBL (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 4:39pm

But doesn't running by committee increase a running backs longevity( see Fred Taylor)? And also doesn't it slightly insulate a team from the damage that a single injury would due to one workhorse running back. Like when the Giants lost Brandon Jacobs to injury towards the end of the season, they still had Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw.

4
by Will Carroll :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 4:48pm

Great idea and Taylor came to mind about ten minutes after I hit "send" on this column. I'm just not sure and will need to look back. Taylor's an interesting case in that he peaked at the time he finally stayed healthy and had MJD, but I dont know that we can definitely equate the two. I *think* we can, but it needs testing.

On the injury idea, I think this one gets very complex. Let's look at a couple sets:
NYG: Jacobs, Ward, Bradshaw
MIN: Peterson, Taylor, Tahi
IND: Addai, Rhodes, various
SD: Tomlinson, Sproles

I think the Giants are the only team here that knew they'd have a committee. The Colts just kind of lucked into it when Rhodes came available. The Vikes and Chargers are in roughly the same situation -- one big guy and then someone behind him. Taylor's just hanging around more than he's part of the plan, though I think his presence acknowledges the early concerns about Peterson's injury-proneness. We'd need to look at salaries, carry percentages, and a whole lot of factors that I'm not suited for (Aaron? Michael? Bill? anyone?) to really get a handle on this.

5
by Birdman (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 4:57pm

Of course, the Vikings probably should have more of a running-back-by-committee approach, since Chester Taylor is pretty good and more versatile than Peterson.

6
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 5:23pm

Like a broken record, before somebody attributes all of the Giants rushing success to their O-Line, I have to credit Eli Manning with checking out of runs when he sees 8 man fronts, and checking into runs when he see's 7 man fronts. The guy understands fronts, he is sacked very little for a reason. It is very easy to measure that in terms of sacks given up, but much harder to measure his effect on his run game. I can't prove it but I can see it.

One of the interesting things about the Giants RB rotation is that they all three really do bring a different skillset. It is like the old nintendo game Ice Hockey where you either got to choose your hockey player as Big ( strong) Medium, or Skinny ( fast) hockey player.

It seems that most teams tend to like to have their RB committe compliment each other ( thunder/lightning) rather than have 2 guys with similar skill sets ( Power/Power), ( Speed/Speed).

7
by Eddo :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 5:54pm

I always thought that RB-by-committee had two purposes. First, which Will highlights, is to lower the chance of injury.

Second, however, was to avoid relying on one player, knowing that injuries will happen. Look at the Eagles minus Westbrook, or the fear of every Vikings fan if Peterson goes down. RB committees ensure you have some depth at the position.

8
by DangerGnat :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 5:55pm

Loved the Viagra reference.

9
by Chris (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 6:11pm

I wouldn't be so sure that RB by committe lowers " chance of injury". I do agree it would lower chance of injury to your #1 RB, but if player A takes 10 carries, and player B takes 10 carries, it would lower the chance of injury to player A, but increase the chance of injury to player B. The chance of injury is the same, but WHO might get injured changes.

Then again, you would have to assume that RB #1 is better than RB #2, so does the decreased chance of injury warrent the ( potential ) decreased lack of production?

It seems that late in the season with a playoff spot reserved hypothesis would be yes, but if a team is fighting to get in they would try and use their best players to get in.

Maybe some of those ivy league GM's/ coaches have already figured out the optimal RB efficiency frontier.

11
by Love is like a bottle of gin (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 7:53pm

Personally I find B Roth fakes injuries so chronically it is hard to ever take him seriously. Most players get up limping every 20 plays or so (and maybe 1 out of 10 if they are at fault for a poor play). With Ben it is 1 out of 10 on the good plays and around 1 of 2 on the bad ones.

12
by Tom Gower :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 7:55pm

On TEN:
1. The only injury that concerns me is Kyle Vanden Bosch-he's been in and out all year with the groin injury and after all the media yo-yo'ing the last 3 months with him, I have no idea what to expect. Any optimism on my part is really cautious at this point.
2. I think a big part of the reason TEN has an RB rotation is so that Chris Johnson doesn't get 30+ carries every single game. That rotation (by which I mean White) has disappeared a little at times, most notably in the Jets game. I wouldn't be surprised to see a 3:1 or higher ratio in the playoffs, though of course it'll depend on situations.

13
by Megamanic (not verified) :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 9:23pm

Didn't Tomlinson Re-injure his groin in the Denver game? I thought that was one of the reasons why he sat out the end.

Also am I the only person who thinks that if Merriman hadn't have been such a poncy ladyboy about getting surgery & went under in the week following the AFC Championship game he'd be pretty nearly fit & raring to go around now?

14
by shake n bake :: Tue, 12/30/2008 - 9:35pm

Damn you Carrol, you got my hopes up.

Brackett's now ruled out and I have to go back to talking myself into Freddy Keiaho, who has had problems with TEs all year while at OLB, taking the deep middle and Antonio Gates.

19
by Will Carroll :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 7:40pm

Well f**k. Someone WITH THE COLTS told me they expected Brackett to play, but that was Sunday and things do change and I should be used to the Colts lying. They are shifting Keiaho to the middle with Hagler at the outside. I'm honestly not sure if Hagler or Sessions will be covering Gates. I'd guess a lot of Sanders/Bullitt in there as well.

15
by Megamanic (not verified) :: Wed, 12/31/2008 - 12:09am

Linking Tom Brady & a 4 hour erection has to be the subtlest Giselle Bundschen reference EVER.

Good work, keep it up.

Tom Brady, "Putting the Gis in Giselle Bundschen since 2006" as it were...

Happy New year everybody. May your squads remain healthy and you win all your games - except when you play the Chargers :)

16
by Dan V (not verified) :: Wed, 12/31/2008 - 2:10am

While the Dolphins have had a pretty remarkable run of luck with the injuries...they haven't had total luck. Yes their injury report sheet has been pretty bare all season, and much of that was an attitude that Parcells came in when he showed everyone the IR list from last year and said "this is not going to happen this year."

There was never anyone who didn't end up playing who was hidden from the injury list, and there were not a lot of missed practices that would encourage their inclusion on the injury report.

Do not forget, however, that this team lost Donald Thomas, their starting rookie right guard in week one for the season, lost Greg Camarillo to an ACL tear, and lost Justin Smiley who was having a great year to a broken ankle. So while they have had pretty good luck when it comes to players not missing a game or two here or there other than Channing Crowder in week 16, their big injuries on offense were all injuries that immediately landed them on IR, as opposed to the weekly injury report.

20
by Will Carroll :: Fri, 01/02/2009 - 7:42pm

Agree -- it's still an astoundingly low amount of injuries. I expect to see a LOT of this next year.

17
by Steve (not verified) :: Wed, 12/31/2008 - 2:12am

"and by the way, anyone seen Shawne Merriman lately?"

I saw him on Sunday night. He was on the Charger sideline, and was the first person to greet Luis Castillo following his interception.