Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 Sep 2008
by Will Carroll
Baseball season is supposed to be over, or at least the everyday portion of it. Instead, we're here on a Tuesday as the play-ins precede the playoffs. On the gridiron, the compressed nature of the season -- one-tenth as many games and ten times the recovery period -- makes virtually every game "must win" in some senses. That makes injuries significant, and the utter lack of depth in the NFL material. While we'll occasionally get a Tom Brady or a Justin Fargas who gets a chance to emerge because of injury, most of the time we get Matt Cassel or Timmy Smith. Given the true parity in the NFL, injuries are once again becoming deciding factors on who will win, who will lose, and who will be stuck in the middle. Let's get to the injuries:
Sometimes, avoiding surgery can make things more complex. Carson Palmer doesn't need surgery to fix his elbow, which leaves us with the question, what will fix his elbow? Usually, the non-surgical answer is time and treatment, but that leaves us with an open-ended timeframe and Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm of a sinking Bengals season. Palmer's swollen, painful elbow simply didn't respond, and with every attempt to throw, he was dealing with pain and increased swelling. The symptoms match up with both an elbow sprain that's not significant enough to warrant ligament replacement or a battle with bone chips inside the elbow. The latter would be quicker, but that could be cured surgically. Assuming that the Bengals medical staff can find a way to calm down the inflammation and get Palmer back to a point where every throw isn't causing more damage, he should be able to come back relatively quickly after that point. The problem is, we have no idea if or when that might happen. Did Palmer's knee issues lead to changed mechanics, and thus the arm problem? That's an interesting question. The fact is we just don't know, but I would bet that this is the case, indicating that coaching might be a part of the solution, if not a part of the problem.
Let's get past the semantics on Aaron Rodgers. He said that he'd separated or dislocated his shoulder just after the game, while coach Mike McCarthy denied it. On Monday, the official word was that Rodgers had suffered a sprained shoulder. Anyone want to guess how? In a separation or dislocation (it's the same injury, just a matter of degree), the AC joint is stressed and if the ligaments are sprained ... well, there you have it. The result is the same. Rodgers will be sore, but his response to treatment and any loss of mobility or strength will work against getting back out there on Sunday. We won't know how that works until he gets back out on the field and throws, which likely won't come until later in the week. My early read on this is that Rodgers will be a game-time decision on Sunday, so the Packers and fantasy teams should have backups ready. (Mike Florio at PFT sees this the same as I do.)
Ken Whisenhunt said on Monday that he wasn't sure if Anquan Boldin had suffered a concussion. Someone please buy him a clue, because there's no clearer sign of a concussion than a loss of consciousness. Boldin gave the classic sign of that, the "locked arms," as he fell to the turf on a frightening hit that rang out into the tunnel late in Sunday's game. My pal Jenn Sterger, who works for the Jets, said it sounded like a gunshot and Boldin went down about as hard. Not only did he take a pair of hits, one to his helmet, he also went stiff into the hard Meadowlands turf, getting a bit of a head whip. Boldin will be fine in the long term, though he continues to undergo tests and is being watched closely. If Whisenhunt doesn't know that was a concussion and if the NFL is going to allow him to play word games, he's putting his players in danger and should be removed. Yes, I'm serious. (It's also important to note that the NFL is taking this seriously, fining Eric Smith and suspending him a game for the head-on hit.)
Almost doesn't count in football. That Brian Westbrook "almost" played doesn't help the Eagles after they lost in Chicago. It might, however, help us understand whether or not Westbrook will be available next week for a big game against Washington. Westbrook went out during warmups to test his sprained ankle and wasn't quite able to start, but all parties think he was close. Another week of rest and treatment should have him ready to go for Week 5. Westbrook's status might be tough to read and you'll likely hear people call him a game-time decision. The fact is that Westbrook often didn't practice when dealing with his chronic knee problems. Absent a major setback, Westbrook will play in Week 5 and is a must-start for fantasy players.
Well, that didn't last long. Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall, taking over for an injured Willie Parker, is done for the year after fracturing his shoulder blade. It's an unusual injury. Even after looking at the play, I can't tell you how he managed to get enough force to crack the bone. It's likely just the right amount of force on a limb put at just the wrong angle and place. He'll go on Injured Reserve, which leaves the Steelers' RB1 slot to Mewelde Moore until Parker is ready to come back after Week 6. Mendenhall shouldn't have any trouble once the bone heals, so this shouldn't hurt his long term prospects.
Things look better on paper for LaDainian Tomlinson. While his turf toe was in full effect, he did find a couple runs to break, scored some touchdowns, and proved that a RB1 who gets touches will be valuable even if injured. Tomlinson lacked burst, but given the opening, he showed that the toe doesn't slow him down. That's progress over last week. With that, he's past the worst of the problem and now just has to worry about getting through the "mostly healed" stage without suffering some kind of setback. Since turf toe lingers, it's also prone to re-injury, which starts the cycle over again. The Chargers know they have to keep Tomlinson healthy, so I'm not anticipating he'll be put at risk.
Losing a lineman can change the character of an offense. Losing a tackle, especially a left tackle, can be devastating. Losing both tackles, as the Panthers did on Sunday with both Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah ending the game in the training room, is just brutal. Otah's ankle sprain doesn't look to be serious enough to keep him out long term, so the right side should be back to full strength next week. It's Otah's left ankle that's sprained, so he may be a bit slower moving to open the pocket, making him more susceptible to a speed rush. (Fortunately for the Panthers, this week they play the Chiefs, who rank 27th in FO's Adjusted Sack Rate. That, along with the healthy interior, means that the running game shouldn't be affected, though it will affect DeAngelo Williams a bit more than the power-running Jonathan Stewart. On the left side, Gross' concussion was pretty bad; he lost consciousness for more than a minute. His response to that will determine if he can play. If he's out, which seems likely, there should be some small effect on the passing game, though the Panthers have plenty of time to adjust and will likely just cover with a tight end.
The Colts (yes, we are just bolding the entire team, and yes, that is bad) are coming off their bye week, headed to Houston, and have scouts and fantasy owners scratching their heads trying to figure out why the team has been such a mess. The top fantasy value, Reggie Wayne, doesn't even come onto the list until halfway down page 3 of ESPN's rankings, just behind Dwayne Bowe, Sebastian Janikowski, and Rian Lindell. One point back is Peyton Manning. There are a couple factors here, including the early bye week. Most importantly are two games where the offense was so out of sync that the performance has to be discounted. In the Chicago loss, Manning's return from knee problems in the preseason affected the whole offense, with line play an additional problem. In the Jacksonville loss, the offense barely touched the ball, so it's hard to gauge the effectiveness. With the week off, there's a hope that the offense can get both healthy and in sync. Establishing any sort of run game is key, so the Texans improving defense will provide a nice test. If Joseph Addai continues to struggle, don't expect the Colts offense to be able to establish itself at past levels.
Willis McGahee left Monday's game with what is being described as a chest bruise. We'll have to keep our eyes on this to see whether it will affect him next week ... The bye week should give both Darren McFadden and Justin Fargas time to heal. They'll have a new coach, which could alter the offensive scheme, so keep an eye on that ... Laurence Maroney was back at practice for the Pats. His shoulder remains a chronic problem, but one he'll play through for now ... David Patten re-injured his groin and is unlikely to return next week ... A.J. Hawk definitely has a groin strain, but some reports have it as a "tear" or Grade III strain. That could cost him months, not weeks. Sources tell me it's not as severe as some speculated ... The Vikings are concerned that E.J. Henderson may miss some time after dislocating a couple of toes in last Sunday's game ... Brandon Lloyd suffered a "significant knee injury" on Sunday. That's what the Bears are sticking with, though seeing Lloyd's knee "stuff" into the ground makes me think this could be a bad one ... Devin Hester looked fine during the Eagles game and, more importantly, after it ... Randy McMichael has fractured his tibia and should miss six weeks ... Vince Young will be back at practice this week for the Titans, but will be the backup and has no chance of overtaking Kerry Collins in the near term, save for injury.
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