There will be four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the season. What common characteristics will distinguish these teams above all others?
30 Dec 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
20 comments, Last at 02 Jan 2009, 7:42pm by Will Carroll