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04 Jan 2008

Black and Blue Report: Wild Card Round

by Will Carroll

Now that the fantasy football season is done for the year, Football Outsiders is proud to bring Will Carroll's Black and Blue Report back to its original home for a special postseason run.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans show why teams fight tooth-and-nail to earn a bye. They had to play hard in the last couple weeks just to make the playoffs, and couldn't get any extra rest for their starters, so now the team almost literally limps into the playoffs.

The most significant injury is to Vince Young, who spent the second half of a must-win game watching Kerry Collins play well. Young was shown by NBC on the sidelines getting worked on by the medical staff, but interestingly, they were working on his hip, not his quad. That matches up with his limp, the "head bobbing" often seen when someone with a hip injury is trying to walk. I'm very curious how Young will recover and whether his poor play in the second half is explained by a more serious injury.

Wide receiver Roydell Williams caught 55 passes for the Titans, tied for the team lead, but he broke his ankle in practice on Wednesday and will be out for the rest of the season. The Titans also have to contend with the loss of tight end Bo Scaife. While everyone was replaying Darrell Reid's hit on Chris Henry on a kickoff, it was Matt Giordano's shot on Scaife that made me jump out of my seat. Scaife folded around Giordano and in the end, came away with a lacerated liver. Lacerated liver! Think about that next time you see one of these big hits.

The Titans defense held up with a hobbled Albert Haynesworth, but even Joseph Addai isn't LaDainian Tomlinson. The defense is going to be keyed to L.T., and Haynesworth's effectiveness will decide whether or not the Tennessee defense can hold up. Double teams on Haynesworth keep double teams off Kyle Vanden Bosch.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers may not have the bye, but fortunately, they enter the playoffs relatively healthy. A couple key cogs to the defense -- Luis Castillo and Shawne Merriman -- have battled injuries and ... must .. resist ... easy ... line ... deep breath and continue. With the Titans offensive scheme and personnel, the mobility of Vince Young (or lack thereof) makes this a better matchup for the Chargers, since neither will tax their injured legs chasing plays.

On offense, the biggest concern is the slight knee problem that is still affecting Philip Rivers. Always known for his three-quarters delivery, Rivers has had to be very conscious of his base when passing over the past few weeks. That has slowed him up slightly, but according to those who have watched him closely, it's made him a bit more consistent and "realistic." "He'd occasionally make one of those Brett Favre throws, where you know it can't possibly get there," one NFL front office denizen said. "I think he knows he can't do what he thinks he could now, so the knee's helped."

(Ed. note: As for FO stats, three of Rivers' six highest DPAR games have come over the past three weeks.)

The Chargers come into the game relatively healthy and hope to escape it the same way, but the Titans' physical style isn't likely to let them off so easy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Some teams succeed in spite of themselves. Coming off a year when injuries (ruptured spleen, anyone?) affected them as much as any team in football, the Bucs once again rank near the bottom in injury cost. The loss of Cadillac Williams is at the top of the list, but Michael Pittman, Jeff Garcia, and Earnest Graham have all had problems as well. The resurgent defense has held the offense together just enough to get to the playoffs, but are they healthy enough to use the remaining talent they have? It appears so. By sealing their playoff fate, they've been able to rest Garcia and Graham enough to get them back to a stage where the injuries shouldn't need compensation. The offensive line has their work cut out for them on both sides, but this type of game plays into their strengths. Injuries shouldn't be a significant factor for the Bucs.

New York Giants

Should we be worried that Plaxico Burress wasn't at practice much this week after hearing Cris Collinsworth rave about how he practiced the previous week? Probably not, since Burress has been doing this all season. His ankle, now a chronic problem that will likely affect him for the rest of his career, is just healthy enough to remain effective. In watching this season, I've developed a theory that teams that play the Pats one week play worse the next. I think the physical Pats put such a beating on opponents (which was clear with the Colts and Ravens, two physical teams) that they're down for the next week. We'll see if that holds true for the Giants, who played tough and didn't get the rest that many other teams would have received heading into Week 17.

If there's a key for this game, it's how well Brandon Jacobs can hold up. His second half has been what many of us expected for the full season, though he still has major questions about durability that will need to be answered.

Pittsburgh Steelers

I've never been one to shy away from puns or cliches, so why start now? The Steelers limp into the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger banged up, Willie Parker just a memory, Najeh Davenport their best option, and the offensive line buckling more than that car Roethlisberger hit with his head two years ago. The defense is thin, missing Aaron Smith and seeing Troy Polamalu continue to have physical problems, no longer the fly-around player he was when the Steelers dashed through the playoffs just a few years ago. (The Colts might want to note the decline and fall of Polamalu, but I guess Bob Sanders already has his big guaranteed deal.)

And so much for the good news. The line lost Marvel Smith to back surgery, meaning they're playing a third-stringer (Trai Essex) at a key position, having also lost Max Starks in a meaningless game. Roethlisberger should be able to play without significant limits due to his sprained ankle; he has played well despite knee problems in the past. He'll have his wide receivers at the ready, with last week's rest being key for Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward.

There's not much more that can be said about Davenport's injury history. His ankle problems are well chronicled and the Steelers just need him to stay healthy for a week at a time, not carry a feature load.

(By the way, the injury stats don't support Fred Taylor's claims about the Steelers' field. My feelings on the artificial stuff are pretty well known, and I think the team would be well served by sticking with the grass and hiring more or better groundskeepers.)

Jacksonville Jaguars

For the Jags, it all comes down to defense. The offense is relatively healthy, going deep at all skill positions (though in the case of the wide receivers, it means they're equally mediocre) and the key players -- David Garrard, Fred Taylor, and Maurice Jones-Drew -- all got last week off. Given their complete dominance the last time they played the Steelers, there isn't much of a secret with how Jack Del Rio will run the offense.

The bigger question is the defense, where injuries have really hurt Jacksonville. Without Mike Peterson (whose hand is still keeping him from even practicing) and Marcus Stroud, the defense has become a little flatter and more reliant on the system rather than individuals making plays. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- it's worked for them for several weeks and could continue to do so deep into the playoffs.

Washington Redskins

It's odd to say this about a team that heads into the playoffs minus their All-Pro safety and starting quarterback, let alone one that had wide reciever problems throughout the season and couldn't seem to keep their defense together, but the Redskins are fairly healthy. No, Jason Campbell isn't coming back, no matter how far they get into the playoffs. The Skins will have to play with the ones that brung 'em, but that's not a bad thing. Todd Collins has played second-string in the Al Saunders offense since the days of leather helmets, and his understanding of the offense has opened things up. The Redskins are now spreading the offensive workload around at virtually every position. Santana Moss has his speed back after injuries nearly shut him down for much of the second half, while Clinton Portis has performed well enough while learning to save a bit of wear and tear on his own body. Whether they're talented enough to win remains to be seen, but if emotions count, this team is not only relatively healthy, they're dangerous.

Seattle Seahawks

Injuries have dictated game plans for the Seahawks. Luckily, Mike Holmgren had just enough depth to pull off that particularly difficult move. When Deion Branch or D.J. Hackett was down, they'd run more and shift the targets to Bobby Engram and Nate Burleson. When Shaun Alexander fell apart, the team threw more and let Mo Morris take the running load. Yes, it's a bit of luck that when the running game was hurting, all three wide receivers were in place and vice versa, but luck is the residue of design, said Branch Rickey, and that residue apparently comes in that neon greenish stripe that was heretofore unexplained. Hackett is a bit of a wild card, his chronic ankle forcing him to finish his season on the bench, but the rest should -- should! -- be productive, spreading the offense, while Shaun Alexander is just -- just! -- effective enough to split carries with Mo Morris. Hackett isn't as important to the offensive scheme as many people think, but teams didn't show that they could game-plan for all the Seahawks' weapons on the very few occasions that they were all on the field. We'll see if Dan Snyder remembered to purchase that page of the playbook.

Posted by: Will Carroll on 04 Jan 2008

35 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2008, 5:05pm by Carlos


by black (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:23pm

The one article of the year were less means more.

Go Jags!!

by The Original Sam (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:31pm

"(By the way, the injury stats don’t support Fred Taylor’s claims about the Steelers’ field. My feelings on the artificial stuff are pretty well known, and I think the team would be well served by sticking with the grass and hiring more or better groundskeepers.)"

By the way, the story and quotes were taken out of context and only widely noticed weeks after they were made. He made the comments after the Miami game and it was done fairly light-heartedly. No need to get bent out of shape OR call out Freddy for having his panties in a wad over the field.

by LooseOnTheLead (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:32pm

I haven't read this column very often, so maybe I'm just unaware that guys on IR don't count as being injured. I do know that, in addition to the injuries listed, the Redskins are missing Thomas, Jansen, Rogers, and McIntosh, all starters not mentioned in the article. Oh, and let's not forget Brandon Lloyd! ;-)

by Hank (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:37pm

Essex is a key player for the steelers, but Marvel Smith hadn't exactly been playing great while Starks was out so perhaps the change will be for the best. I think the team really missed Ryan Clark.
And with Rivers, might the increased late season performance be attributable to Chris Chambers?

by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:43pm

So, if injuries end up dominating things, it seems like Tennessee and Pittsburg are in trouble, and New England can expect to face Jacksonville in Round 2, while the Colts end up with San Diego...

by Carlos (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 1:59pm

Where's Pat and his relentlessly smug comments about the Skins' lack of depth?

They made the playoffs in the toughest division in the NFC, and did so despite missing their starting RT, G, QB, OLB, CB and pro-bowl S.

Any other team missing 6 of 22 starters down the stretch making the playoffs?

by kevinNYC (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:06pm

Picking 2 or 3 games out of a 16 game schedule as proof that the Pats are so physical they cause injuries/poor play the next week seems foolish to me. The Colts had lost 5 different starters to injury before they even played the Pats. Who were they going to beat with the players missing from the Chargers game? After playing the Pats, the Ravens were "down for the next week" because they're not any good.

I wouldn't draw any correlation between the Giants injuries and the Pats' physicality. Madison is old and gets hurt A LOT. O'Hara was hurt by another player falling on his legs. Considering the Giants' tendency to have players break their fibula, they're lucky it was only a knee sprain.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:08pm

Re: 3

The purpose (IMO) of the article is to point out new injury news. So since Thomas, Jansen, and Rogers has all been gone for at least a couple months, unless they were coming back nothing has changed and them still being gone doesn't really matter. You have a point with McIntosh, though.

by TGT (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:08pm

LooseOnTheLead, this column explains how players are going to be affected by their injuries. I think it's obvious that anyone on IR is not going to play. How much someone with a calf or hip injury plays, and in what ways the injury will limit them, is not something the average FO fan could simply lookup.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:10pm

Re: 6

Blind squirrel..Nut...etc.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:13pm

Essex is a key player for the steelers, but Marvel Smith hadn’t exactly been playing great while Starks was out so perhaps the change will be for the best.

Er, Marvel Smith was the starter, and Starks played LT while Smith was injured, and frankly, did a decent job, though it was mostly against the Dolphins in the Swamp Bowl and the Rams. I'm not sure it really matters, though, that Essex has to start now. The O-line has been dreadful all season, so it's not like Essex is going to drag them down. Ultimately, the game will come down to whether or not Ben can save the Steelers from their myriad flaws.

In Ben we trust.

by Carlos (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:41pm

Blind squirrel..Nut…etc.

Really? How can you be so sure?

If their helmets had a swooshing "patriot" on them instead of an indian chief, you wouldn't write it off to blind luck.

Other explanations would be (1) coaching. Bugel actually turned Stephon Heyer and Lorenzo Alexander in to serviceable lineman. And the DL coach, whoever he/they is/are have turned Anthony Montgomery into an outstanding DT. And (2) good scouting for freely available talent which offsets their lousy scouting for expensive talent. Cf., Randall Godfrey and HB Blades, Heyer, Smoot, Doughty, Montgomery, Chris Wilson, etc. etc. etc..

The Colts - Skins analogy held up well this year, but not for reasons suggested in the book. Instead, both teams suffered a tremendous # of injuries to starters but ended up revealing more depth than FO snarkers suspected they had.

Honestly, how can outsiders really have any clue how good Team X's bench is vs. Team Y's, until injuries force those bench players to play. Yes, last year the Skins didn't have depth, but this year, they've shown about as good depth as any team possible could show.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 2:58pm

#7 Beat me to it. Thx. What a preconcieved conclusion leap that was.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 3:05pm

Re: 12

The fans of any team winning with Todd freaking Collins have no right to crow about their team's depth.

The point is that they seem to be winning in spite of their depth, not because of it. And that's not a knock of this year's team. They've played very well despite all the injuries. They earned a playoff spot playing in the most competitive division in the conference (arguably the league). Good for them, and good for Joe Gibbs. Enjoy the playoff ride and hope lasts as long as possible.

But this is only the second winning season Washington's had since Snyder bought the team. Don't use this one year as a confirmation that his team-building philosophy is a success until they show more than just flashes of being more than a mediocre team.

by lester (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 3:11pm

Hey, guys
Does anyone know Reggie heyward's status for the jags? Didnt see him mentioned in the article; is he back healthy or has he been put on IR?

by Jordy (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 3:18pm

#7 - Come on, get JACKED UP! Along the same JACKED UP! lines, a recent Audibles stated how fearsome the Seattle defense is based on players X, Y, and Z getting injured while playing against Seattle. Where X & Y, and Z were the ever-sturdy Jeff Garcia & Cadillac Williams and Santonio Holmes, who wasn't even active for the Seattle game.

by Ari (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 3:35pm

Wow, an intelligent discussion of the Redskins playoff prospects without talking about Sean Taylor!

by Flounder (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 3:44pm

Natural grass reinforced with synthetic fibers has worked well in green bay. Link in name

by Al H (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 4:06pm

Re: 15

Hayward is good to go again, he played some during the Texans game last week.

by Podge (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 4:30pm

"the offensive line buckling more than that car Roethlisberger hit with his head two years ago."

I'm no expert, but in a game of Car Vs Head its normally the head that buckles first.

by LooseOnTheLead (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 4:41pm

I dunno. How can a team be described as "fairly healthy" with that many starters missing? Also, if guys on IR don't count, why does a dead guy get a mention?

by Herm? (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 5:02pm

Look at the records of teams after they play New England.
The hypothesis that "teams that play the Pats one week play worse the next" should probably be "teams are very likely to lose their next game after playing New England". I don't know if I agree 100% with his conclusion of being physically taxed. It's probably attributed to a couple of things: being physically taxed, Pats strength of schedule, opponents strength of schedule, previous injuries...
Here's how each team did the following week:
Giants - TBD
Dolphins - L
Jets - L
Steelers - L
Ravens - L
Eagles - L
Bills - L
Colts - L
Redskins - W! (Jets)
Dolphins - L
Cowboys - W (Minnesota)
Browns - W (Miami)
Bengals - L (KC, after a bye)
Bills - W (Jets)
Chargers - L
Jets - L

Anyways, my point is the Giants will be taxed, but if they just hold down Earnest Graham and Joey Galloway, they should win. Their interior should destroy TB on both sides of the ball.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 5:43pm

Re: 21

The Redskins are considered fairly healthy because the players that played a major role in the team making the playoffs are fairly healthy. You mentioned two guys who were done before October and another guy who was done by the end of October.

by LooseOnTheLead (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 6:31pm

Re 23: Okay...are you saying that the Redskins wouldn't be much better off with those players healthy? Or is it just that the Skins are so deep that season-ending injuries to starters don't matter? ;-)

by Carlos (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 6:38pm

The fans of any team winning with Todd freaking Collins have no right to crow about their team’s depth.

Actually the skins have Collins and Brunnel as backups to Campbell. Let's compare that depth to all other playoff teams. Tell me, who has better QB depth?

The point is that they seem to be winning in spite of their depth, not because of it.

Ah, last year they lost b/c of their (lack of) depth. This year they win DESPITE their (lack of) depth. Rhetorical genius!

Or maybe they simply have much better depth this year. Several defensive starters were upgrades over last year, which meant their backups were much better too (Fletcher, McIntosh, Montgomery). And several backups were much better than the 2006 version (Smoot vs. burnt toast; Doughty vs. V Fox; Godfrey/Blades vs. last years starter; Golston vs. Salavea; Chris Wilson vs. no one). Same goes for offense.

Don’t use this one year as a confirmation that his team-building philosophy is a success

Gee, thx for the warning, but I did no such thing. This argument is about whether the skins have depth, which they've proven in spades to have this year, in spite of Pat's early and pre-season harping to the contrary.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 6:52pm

What I was trying to say is that just because this year's Redskins team just happened to sneak into the playoffs after suffering what doesn't seem that all that many injuries (relative to the league average) doesn't mean that all of a sudden they found all this hidden talent on their depth chart. Any team can have a decent single isolated year. All I'm saying is that it's a bit premature to start pounding your chest and calling people out who doubted your team.

by Carlos (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 7:51pm

what doesn’t seem that all that many injuries (relative to the league average)

6 starters seems like a lot of injuries to me.

Starting right side of the OL: RT who was All-Pro just 2 years ago; RG is I think it's safe to say is above average.

Starting QB.

And on defense, your top draft picks from 2004, 2005 & 2006, all starters.

What's the league average for starters lost for the season? What about top draft picks?

I don't have 2007 data, but Google revealed the following info for 2006, per the Dallas morning news. Link in name.

in 2006, 32 teams lost 1288 starter games due to injury (including Corey Simon). That's an average of 40.25, and it also happens that Denver ranked 16th with 40 games last year. Also, 90 starters ended the year on the IR, for an average of 2.8.

So were the '07 redskins more injured than the 2006 average?

Starter Games Lost:
Janson: 16 games
Thomas: 13
Rogers: 9
Taylor: 7
Washington: 5
Randle El: 3
McIntosh: 3
Campbell: 3
Moss: 2
Rabach: 1

That's 62. 50% worse than 2006 average and would have placed 27th last year.

Note that last year (when I agree they had no depth), the perception is that they were done in by injuries but ranked as the 11th healthiest team based on starter games lost. Of course it all depends on which starters you lose, but this year's were pretty important.

Starters ending season on IR or dead: 5(Janson, Thomas, McIntosh, Rogers, Taylor).

Also "just happened to sneak in"? All four teams in the NFC East were in the top half for DVOA. All four teams finished .500 or better. I think the redskins "played" their way in moreso than Seattle or TB, neither of whom had a winning team in their divisions.

My argument is a simple one: this year the Redskins demonstrated outstanding depth, unlike in recent years.

by Paralis (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 9:12pm


And that's not even the complete list. Philip Daniels missed a game due to injury, and Mike Sellers missed two. Sellers is a more questionable call given the frequency with which the Skins run 3WR sets, but he missed fewer games than James Thrash (4) or Brandon Lloyd (8).

Also tricky to include are the 4 and 5 games missed by backup tackles Todd Wade and Stephon Heyer.

The one thing about the new Gibbs Redskins that I continue to be unimpressed with is Joe Bugel. Stephon Heyer's turned out to be a reliable fill-in (particularly for a UFA) at both tackle positions, but it's been 4 years and there's still no depth along the interior. Fabini and Pucillo haven't been complete disasters, but Kendall was an unlooked-for miracle, and there's nobody who can take his place either. The Redskins are getting good production out of every one of their linemen, but they're paying for it at every position, and Rabach is the baby of the group (will be 31 next October).

by Carlos (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 9:49pm

Paralis - I agree that depth on the OL and DL should be top offseason priorities. Of course I thought the same last year, too!

by Fergasun (not verified) :: Fri, 01/04/2008 - 11:43pm

Talk about your jealous Eagle fan.

Just think if your team had Reno Mahe returning punts in Week 1 or Kevin Curtis held onto McNabbs pass instead of getting rocked by Laron Landry... your team could be in the playoffs... or maybe even if Reid went for a FG at the end of the first half against Seattle than Akers could've hit the chip shot field goal instead of having Feeley throw it into the end zone.

Redskins have shown incredible and unexpected depth on the roster this season. You can't doubt that. Carlos already put up the numbers regarding games missed per injury... although one could argue the emergence of Todd Collins as gravy... someone must've made the call for him over Brunell.

by kevinNYC (not verified) :: Sat, 01/05/2008 - 4:04am

#22... Care to give that some in depth analysis?

It seems as if the Jets and Dolphins didn't win games after playing any opponent. The same can probably be said for the Ravens and Bengals.

I challenge you to find one person who thinks the Eagles lost to the Seahawks because they were beat up against the Pats. OTOH, I could find a thousand people who think the loss centered around AJ Feeley constantly throwing the ball to Lofa Tatupu.

The Steelers lost to the what most people consider the best team the last 8 weeks of the season not named the Patriots.

This seems like a way of puffing up the Pats unnecessarily. Their accomplishments are recognizable without creating this fantasy that they beat up on the teams and cause short term damage.

by Herm? (not verified) :: Sat, 01/05/2008 - 2:02pm

31 I think you may have forgotten to read my entire post.

I'll make it easy on you:
"I don’t know if I agree 100% with his conclusion of being physically taxed. It’s probably attributed to a couple of things: being physically taxed, Pats strength of schedule, opponents strength of schedule, previous injuries...

At what point do you look at all those losses and say it's not a coincidence? There has to be SOME reason(s)
And no, I'm not giving you any in-depth analysis, because, well, you don't deserve it.

by Jordy (not verified) :: Sat, 01/05/2008 - 5:28pm

Anyone who follows football knows that teams tend to have a letdown the week after playing a strong team. The Patriots established themselves from the beginning as the strongest team, the team to beat. 22/32 is trying very hard to overthink it and, for some reason, believes that gives him cause to put down other commenters as unworthy.

by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Mon, 01/07/2008 - 12:19pm

Re: 27

I'll just address your last two points since without a more thorough analysis of league-wide injury history, everything I'd say would just be conjecture.

I'll agree the "just happened to sneak in" was a bit more derisive than I should have been, but I am an Eagles fan, so I think that's completely in my rights. ;)

What I meant was that any team that wraps up the final playoff spot in the final week could have been considered to have "just happened to sneak in".
It was really meant as more of a light-hearted jab than it perhaps came off as.

And you're correct, they have shown remarkable depth this year, but the key part of that sentence it "...unlike recent years". Is it really that much of an insult to have assumed that since Washington's team building strategy doesn't seem to have changed that they would continue to have the same depth problems that they've had in the past?

by Carlos (not verified) :: Mon, 01/07/2008 - 5:05pm

34 Wanker,

Completely agreed on your rights as an Iggles fan.

Also, agreed re assumption coming into this year that the Skins wouldn't have any depth. That was certainly my assumption as well, but somehow things didn't turn out that way. That said, going in to next year, I again see a problem that's not exactly a lack of depth, but rather a lack of outstanding players, especially b/c their three best young defenders are either dead or suffered very serious knee injuries this year. Depth only gets you so far if you have no stars to make the occasional jaw dropping play.