It's the small things in the NFL sometimes, like a patch of mud at practice. Roethlisberger slipped on a slick bit of ground Wednesday and felt something in his knee. The Steelers did the smart thing and pulled him, letting Byron Leftwich take the reins, while they treated Big Ben. Sources say that the swelling was minimal, so the team feels, and plans for, Roethlisberger to be under center. We still have a couple days' practice to monitor this, and since Mike Tomlin has seen Leftwich be effective, it's likely that Roethlisberger will play, but I'd expect Tomlin to have a quick hook at the slightest indication of an issue. We're at the stage of the season where "2-4 week" injuries become season-enders, and teams that aren't cruising into the playoffs are trying to figure out how to improve their positions. We won't really begin to see teams planning for rest and recovery as pertains to games yet, but we are seeing it in practice. Expect a few teams to start changing how they do things and getting guys out of there next week, with the rate increasing through the fantasy playoffs.
The Cowboys got hit with a double whammy last week, losing key players on the offense and defense within moments of each other. Luckily, it could have been a lot worse. Barber dislocated his fifth (pinkie) toe, and it had to be reduced in the locker room. It's a very painful injury, but not as key to push off as the other toes. Where it will be tested is in lateral movements, and, to a lesser extent, in stopping. Barber isn't a start-stop runner, letting tackles slow him rather than his own power, so he should be able to get back relatively quickly and get back to a reasonable level. For this week, it's a question of pain tolerance on Barber's part and prudence on the Cowboys' part. If he can safely go, he will, though it's likely to be a timeshare with Tashard Choice for at least a week.
On the defensive side, Ware injured his knee on a rush. He was thrown off balance and took a step awkwardly, hyperextending his knee. He was being propped up during the post-game interview while denying the knee hurt, which is always fun to see. However, Ware's injury was one of his own body weight, not of additional weight, and that saved him. It was sore and a bit swollen as of Monday, but the medical staff expects him to be able to play this week. There's some question of whether he will, though again, there are a couple days of practice and treatment before they make any final decisions.
While I often talk about the macho culture of football ultimately hurting the sport as players who try to work through pain just end up doing more damage, there's a lot about Portis that's just different. Portis has always been a bit injury-prone, mostly with traumas to his legs and shoulders, but this season, it's a bit of everything, from his knee to his hips to his shoulder. Still, he's playing through it. We've heard that he's doing it as some sort of tribute to Sean Taylor, which is an emotional response, but sources tell me that there's something more here. "There's a difference between soreness and pain," one expert with knowledge of the situation told me, "and Portis is simply changing his personal definition. That's an intriguing mental distinction few others grasp." Whether or not this psychological connection is helping, the worry is that Portis is cascading toward one of these injuries that leads to another or exacerbates an existing condition. Then again, the short nature of the NFL schedule makes it possible that he'll come through fine, especially with the quality of care he's recieving between games. I can't say I agree with his approach, but it's possible that we're seeing something bigger than a tribute happening. Portis might end up a pioneer.
No one likes to hear "groin" and "very sore" in the same sentence. That's what Bills fans are dealing with, but just think about Edwards, who's actually feeling it. As the Bills head north this week to play in Toronto, Edwards may not be on the field, but if so, the field itself could be an issue. The Bills are one of the last teams to play on AstroTurf, which now consists of a new compound called Gameday Grass, which is more like FieldTurf but has additional cushioning underneath. The Rogers Centre has FieldTurf, which is more suited for baseball than football, as the Argonauts' complaints suggest. There were no problems of note during the Bills' preseason game in Toronto, but with a sore groin, the harder surface could be an issue if Edwards does play.
Sometimes it's more than just injury that decides how long a player is out. Schaub was the backup Monday after Gary Kubiak decided that Schaub's lack of lateral movement made re-injury too much of a risk. Then Sage Rosenfels went out and had a big game, and now Schaub's return this week is in a bit of question. It's a common issue, and while I don't have any opinion on who should play, it does show why assessing the recovery of players is so tough. Schaub gets credit for being active, but he didn't play. Next week, he may be able to play, but might not. That shows up in injury stats in very confusing and conflicting ways. At least it's well known, unlike the decisions we don't understand for less visible players. All in all, it looks like Schaub will be available and that the knee shouldn't be an issue going forward. Schaub's inability to stay healthy is becoming an issue, though, in discussions about how good he can be.
Winslow's season has been about like the Browns' -- disappointing, but not in the way some would have expected. It's been a bit of everything for Winslow, in much the same way as Portis. Winslow's had hip, shoulder and now, a high ankle sprain that will keep him out of this week's game and likely beyond. While Winslow's injury problems have come off the field, his style on the field is so high-energy and high-contact that he's not the type who will avoid injuries, which could shorten his career. If you watch Winslow, he almost seems to be looking for a hit, where someone like Marvin Harrison and to a lesser extent, Reggie Wayne, often appear to get down to avoid hits. If you saw Wes Welker get decleated and nearly beheaded last week, it's hard to argue the concept of avoiding killshots. It's a lesson Winslow and more players should be learning.
The Colts have been a story of injuries all season long. With Jeff Saturday likely out again, the Colts' offensive woes are at least understood, and something the team has dealt with throughout the season. Across the ball, the undersized, "bend, don't break" defense keeps breaking down, if not breaking. It's one thing to lose Bob Sanders and beat the Texans and Browns, but Gary Brackett's injury may be more damaging. The broken fibula likely ends Brackett's regular season, though the playoffs are still in play. The Tampa 2 funnels a lot to the weak side linebacker, so pushing Freddy Keiaho inside weakens the run defense, forcing them to use practice-squadder Buster Davis in the middle. Add in that Melvin Bullitt isn't Sanders in run support, and the problem gets worse. Of course, Sanders is expected back next week, though his knee is back in 2006 week-to-week mode, and the Colts likely will be very conservative with him. We'll have to see later in the week, but don't be surprised if the Colts essentially move Sanders to LB by playing a modified version of the nickel, with both Sanders and Bullitt on the field.
Of all the things that can come out of the suspensions the NFL handed down to six players this week for taking a supplement that contained a league-banned diuretic, the most telling is that both Pat and Kevin Williams are suing and gaining restraining orders, not because the tests are inaccurate, but because they believe their suspensions are "politically motivated."
That motivation, the argument goes, is to keep up the charade of effectiveness for the NFL's drug policy.
None of these players were taking steroids; they were taking, perhaps unknowingly, a strong diuretic. However, they were knowingly taking a substance that was not an approved or blessed supplement. (The "blessed list" is a list of supplements tested by the NSF as clear of all banned substances.)
If the NFL had bypassed the doctrine of athletes being responsible for everything going into their bodies, it would have kicked the remaining teeth out of the policy, one that's served the NFL well in avoiding the type of scrutiny and ridicule that baseball has faced.
The Williams' lawsuit offers an interesting assertion, in that the NFL's doctors may have known that StarCaps contained a banned substance. Again, though, the responsibility is on the athlete, not the policy's managers.
There are rumors the NFL didn't hold this standard, letting off someone who earlier tested positive for the diuretic and led the NFL to StarCaps. If so, the law will have an interesting question, but the policy remains one of "strict liability." It's only that doctrine that stands between the NFL's policy and irrelevance, a place it already stands dangerously close to. It's time for the NFL to improve.
Brandon Jacobs will play and take the feature role against the Eagles this Sunday ... Ryan Grant will play despite an injured thumb. His grip on the ball is the only concern ... With Deuce McAllister out, Reggie Bush will go back to his normal role as the speed back to Pierre Thomas' feature role ... Willie Parker came out of last week with his sore knee no more sore than it was. That's a plus, so he'll get a few more carries than Mewelde Moore this week ... I watched Steve Slaton again last week and I don't care what the scouting reports say. I just can't imagine teams could pass on this guy two or three times in the draft ... Thinking Kevin Smith would be a good start this week? The Williams boys both got restraining orders on their suspensions and will play. Besides, Smith sprained his ankle last week and is still a Lion ... Wes Welker still hasn't been cleared after his concussion ... Donnie Avery is iffy with a hip pointer and seems to be hitting the rookie wall ... Quit saying "broken finger." It was the torn tendon that ended Brady Quinn's season. Surgery corrected it and he'll be back next season without effect.