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?
17 Dec 2009
by Will Carroll
As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part. Things are seldom worse than that period between an injury to a star player and the MRI. It's like waiting for a baby. Fortunately, everything came out okay for the Cardinals, their fans, and for Fitzgerald. Instead of a torn ligament, the imaging found nothing more than bruising. There was likely some low-grade stretching (mild sprain, in medical terms) of the ligaments. Both the mechanism and the initial manual testing gave the Cards' medical staff reason to worry that Fitzgerald had a significant injury. Like most injuries this time of year, the record and the playoff chances will be a big factor in when Fitzgerald comes back. The Cards have hope and Fitzgerald has indicated he thinks he can play this week. The Cards have a good record of handling this type of situation and holding back players -- I'm looking at you, Anquan Boldin -- so the decision is going to be handled by the medical staff properly. It will also come very, very late so keep your options open.
The Eagles have gone through all the right steps with Brian Westbrook, followed all the rules and new regulations, and haven't made a final decision about whether he'll return this week or at all after a pair of concussions. Still, the Eagles showed that the NFL still doesn't get concussions yet. First, a player coming back from multiple concussions after just a few weeks sends a bad message, even if the Eagles are playing for playoff position. Second, a press release discussing Westbrook's "special new helmet" was designed to show just how seriously this was being taken. The special helmet? It's a Schutt DNA, a helmet that has been in use in the NFL since 2005. It's a fine helmet, but hardly "special." It's new to Westbrook, but not new. The NFL's new policies are about winning the PR war, not real change, but they're failing at even finding good spin.
Speaking of multiple injuries, DeMarcus Ware is "50-50" to play this Sunday, according to Wade Phillips. Ware had what appeared to be serious neck injury last Sunday, but came out of it with nothing more than a sprain. He had a similar injury in the season opener and blames not wearing a neck brace -- a so-called "Cowboy Collar" like this one. I did an image search on Ware and didn't find any pictures where he was wearing a collar. That's hardly scientific but it's odd that he'd suddenly need one and worse that it didn't prevent a recurrence. Ware has played the whole season banged up, with a stress fracture in his foot and a fractured wrist, but has remained productive. The macho culture is certainly in play in Big D and Ware's lucky that he just had a scare last week and not something that left him unable to do important things like this.
Essentially a backup, Gradkowski normally wouldn't rate more than a mention in "Bumps," but what he did last Sunday is so singular that it bears discussion. Gradkowski tore ligaments in not one, but both of his knees. Gradkowski injured his left knee while being sacked in the first quarter, then injured his right knee on the last play before halftime. Both injuries were MCL sprains, but it was the first injury that is the more severe. Gradkowski will avoid surgery -- most MCL sprains aren't repaired under current medical practices -- but it's unclear if he'll be able to play. He's definitely out this week and the Raiders will make a decision based on "the team's best interest" in the last few weeks of another season without the playoffs in Oakland. At just 26, Gradkowski should be able to heal up and come back, though his value is already marginal.
I hate writing about young players tearing an ACL. It's not that they don't come back; they do and predictably well. It's just that there's not much to add in most cases. With Kevin Smith, it's telling how the Lions have reacted. In saying they're worried about Smith being ready for the start of next season, they're telling us that it's more than just the ACL. It's likely an O'Donoghue's triad, which still puts Smith back before next season. Sure, he might not be 100 percent at the start of the season, but talk of him missing the season or being less than 100 percent all season seem a bit off-base. It's more likely he'll come back slowly with the normal "ramp up." People panicked when I talked about Marques Colston being less than 100 percent at the start of 2009, but he's not only gotten better, he was still productive at that point. Until I hear a reason why Smith won't follow that pattern, I'll expect to see him out there and for the Lions to not overreact when acquiring a backup.
The word "tear" continues to be the most confusing in sports medicine. People use the word without acknowledging that there are degrees of tearing, or worse, use the word "tear" and "rupture" interchangeably. I don't even mind if we standardize on "complete tear" but please, start noticing and calling people on this one. Jeremy Maclin is case in point when Andy Reid said in his press conference that Maclin had torn his plantar fascia. Actually, Reid said he'd torn more of his fascia, but the reporting was all about tear, without any modifier. A ruptured fascia would have been a season-ender without question because the foot would have been non-functional. More tearing is bad, though a podiatrist tells me that he thinks it's more likely that Maclin tore the scar tissue where the previous tear had been healing, leading to the initial pain reaction. While everything sounds like Maclin is out for this week, the dire predictions that came after the injury show that some simply don't understand the physical demands of football or make the effort to talk to people that do.
The injuries to Justin Gage, who has returned from a fractured vertebrae after just a couple weeks off, and to Kenny Britt, who limped out of last week with a back injury of his own, have more to do with Vince Young than with them. Young has improved in many facets of the game, but he continues to throw a high ball, one we used to call a "medicine ball" in high school. Young doesn't seem to have the vision to predict when placing the ball is going to run a wide receiver into the path of danger and often makes his receiver extend for the ball. Young, according to a couple scouts, often makes the receiver turn or spin, leaving his back exposed for a hit. It's not intentional and there was some debate about whether it's even a learnable skill, but maybe the Titans might consider a bit more padding for their receivers if things don't change. Both are expected to play this week, with some limitations.
Not to take anything away from Brandon Marshall's record-setting day on Sunday, but he did it against a Colts secondary that is more than banged up. Already shy three starters, the Colts took more injuries, even considering whether Reggie Wayne would need to go in at corner late in the game. (There's more proof for those wondering about Wayne's foot, by the way.) With Steelers fans blaming their fall on the loss of Troy Polamalu, I'd posit that the Colts are succeeding against greater adversity. With a short week, things don't set up well. Worse, the secondary might get more taxed with both Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis banged up. Less of a pass rush might lead to more coverage needed and that seemed to be the problem on Sunday. The Colts on the field simply couldn't keep up with either a really good wide receiver in Marshall or four- and five-wide sets, where someone would be able to come loose. Freeney's abdomen/groin/sports hernia issue (depending on the source) and Mathis' strained quad leave little in the way of rush. The injuries to pretty much everyone else in the secondary make going with a nickel or dime alignment nearly impossible. The biggest concern is with Antoine Bethea, who has a foot sprain, though it doesn't look as if Jerraud Powers will be back after suffering a moderate hamstring strain. Literally every defensive back on the depth chart is on the injured list, so how Larry Coyer compensates remains to be seen. One unexpected answer coming from a Colts source is more running in hopes of keeping the defense off the field.
Things look good for Vince Young. His mild hamstring strain plus a blowout game kept him from going back in, but early word from Tennessee has him back for Week 15 ... Things are much less clear for Mark Sanchez. His knee -- which I initially thought would be worse than the Jets have been letting on -- is iffy after missing a week ... Matt Schaub had a pretty nice day despite needing an injection in his non-throwing shoulder before the game. He's good, but always only one hit away from being out ... Matthew Stafford is out this Sunday as the Lions look to give his body, especially his shoulder, a break ... Jake Delhomme didn't return to practice on Wednesday as expected. Look for him to make it through a full practice before he gets his job back ... Mike Bell is expected back this week and should get his third of the carries back ... Jonathan Stewart has a toe injury to go with his Achilles issue. If it's turf toe, as rumored, he'll lose a lot of value ... Correll Buckhalter's ankle injury is "more serious" than the one he had one the other side earlier this season. We'll see if Knowshon Moreno gets the carries -- though he has an ankle sprain of his own -- or if Josh McDaniels will split them up among the masses ... Should I feel bad that almost no one missed me last week when my father did B&B, or proud? ... Late word out that Nate Burleson will be unavailable with an ankle injury ... Derrick Mason made a highlight play, staying up after taking a big hit and going for a long touchdown. He did it with a shoulder injury suffered on that hit. Watch to see if he practices later this week ... Zach Miller suffered his second concussion of the season on Sunday. We'll see how the NFL handles this situation ... We decided not to address Chris Henry's death in this column; if you wish to discuss his auto accident, the place to do that is here. Thanks.
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