- From Jimmy Garoppolo and Alex Smith to Keanu Neal and Rodney McLeod, injuries have drastically swung the fates of several NFL teams this season.
Whether a player is out for a week or out for the season, an injury to a starter can wreck havoc on an NFL team. (It can also confuse even the most well-known TV personalities.) And this season there have been no shortage of crushing injuries, from Alex Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo to Ronald Darby and seemingly every Atlanta Falcon except Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Which injured player is missed most by his team this season? The MMQB staff discusses.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco
The 49ers went from being a team dreaming of advancing through the playoffs to being a contender for the No. 1 overall draft pick deep into December after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in the 49ers’ Week 3 loss to the Chiefs. Before Garoppolo became the team’s starter last November, San Francisco was preaching patience (#brickbybrick); the team’s first-time head coach (Kyle Shanahan) and a first-time GM (John Lynch) with six-year deals reflect the franchise’s commitment to that. After Garoppolo became the starter, timetables were torn up and the Niners became the darling of the 2018 offseason.
Now, you can argue that everyone was getting ahead of themselves then, and the roster was still a ways off—and I actually would agree with that. But the records are the records. The Shanahan/Lynch Niners are 6–2 with Garoppolo as starting quarterback, and 3–18 with anyone else starting at quarterback. That’s at least a little about No. 10.
I did consider Alex Smith here. The thing is, the Redskins’ drop-off there was as much about losing two quarterbacks (Colt McCoy, too) as it was about losing one. I actually think they’d have been O.K. with McCoy in there. The Niners have not been O.K. with anyone but Garoppolo over the last two years. — Albert Breer
Garoppolo is making $42 million, the second highest one-year earnings in the history of the NFL (second only to Aaron Rodgers’s $66 million this year). Yet unfortunately for Garoppolo and the 49ers, he has been earning that money from the Injured Reserve list. In the blink of an eye—the time it took for Garoppolo to suffer a serious non-contact knee injury—the 49ers went from playoff contender to also-ran. Garoppolo, coming off a scintillating second half of the 2017 season after being acquired by San Francisco from New England at the trade deadline, gave the team hope, gave the fans excitement, and gave the Rams and Seahawks another team to fear in the NFC West. Without him, the 49ers are feared by no one, not even the cellar-dwelling Arizona Cardinals, who beat the 49ers twice. His injury changed the dynamic in the NFC West and NFC as a whole. With Garoppolo leading the team under the creative play-calling of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were a trendy playoff pick. Without him, they have trended only down. — Andrew Brandt
Alex Smith, QB, Washington
When Alex Smith's leg bent awkwardly as he was sacked to the turf by J.J. Watt and Kareem Jackson in Week 11, breaking his right fibula and tibia, the Washington NFL team's season ended. As Smith reportedly battles an infection in his leg that has required several additional surgeries, his team has fallen apart without him. Smith had steered Washington to a 6–3 record entering that game; it has now lost four straight, most recently a humiliating 40–16 defeat to the Giants that dropped the team below .500 for the first time this season. Washington has started Colt McCoy and Mark Sanchez, and will now turn to Josh Johnson, defiantly ignoring any serious consideration of the player who once before had seamlessly picked up a team's season when Smith was injured, Colin Kaepernick. One month ago, Washington looked on its way to a surprise playoff berth. Now, the team looks on its way to another lost season. — Jenny Vrentas
Not only did Washington chose to sink a playoff-bound season after Smith went down by not going after the best available quarterback to replace him, but they'll also be reeling next year when they have to decide what to do at the position. It's a truly unfortunate situation for Smith, and one has to hope he'll get back on his feet soon. But it's also a puzzle for Washington, which now has to replace a franchise quarterback for the second time in as many years in a division that seems to be passing them by. — Conor Orr
Earl Thomas, S, Seattle
Season-ending injuries to Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo obviously had the biggest impacts on their respective teams by virtue of their position, but one that's somehow flown under the radar is Earl Thomas and his fractured left leg. It's difficult to say what kind of impact it had on the team's fortunes; on one hand, Seattle lost arguably its best defensive four games into the season, and its pass defense has middled since (16th in opponent passer rating. On the other hand, losing Thomas has forced players like Bradley McDougald and Tedric Thompson to grow up quickly, and its hard to argue with the results—most of us in the national media wrote the Seahawks off in August, but they're 8–5 and almost certainly headed to the playoffs as a wild card. — Robert Klemko
Cooper Kupp, WR, L.A. Rams
Yes, the Rams have gone 4–1 in the five games that Cooper Kupp has missed this season since tearing his ACL in a Week 10 win over Seattle. And sure, their offense has averaged 31.6 points in each of those games. But if you look closer into the numbers, you can see that the Los Angeles offense, and especially quarterback Jared Goff, is not the same without the trusty receiver in the lineup. With Kupp in the lineup, Goff was putting up MVP-level numbers and the Rams offense looked to be unstoppable. For reference: In the eight games this season that Kupp started, Goff had a 69.6% completion percentage, averaged 329.6 passing yards per game, had a TD to INT ratio of nearly 3:1 and was sacked 1.6 times per game. In the five games without Kupp, Goff’s numbers drop significantly—a 57.3% completion rate, 216.2 passing yards a game, a 2:1 TD to INT ratio and an average of 3.2 sacks a game.
Kupp was not the flashiest part of Los Angeles’s high-powered attack, but he was a crucial cog, and it seems the Rams are still trying to figure out how to replace him in their system. If they don’t figure it out soon, Kupp’s absence could have a significant impact for a team that had very real Super Bowl aspirations. — Ben Baskin
Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Deion Jones, Grady Jarrett; Atlanta Falcons
As quarterbacks on teams that once had playoff dreams, Jimmy Garoppolo or Alex Smith are both popular choices. But I think the injuries to the key players on the Falcons defense have sunk Atlanta to their current hopeless 4–9 record this season. Atlanta lost safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen for the season in September to an ACL and an Achilles, respectively. Linebacker Deion Jones landed on IR after week two with a foot injury that required surgery, and he recently returned to play after an 11-week absence. To top it off, defensive tackle Grady Jarrett has been battling an ankle injury all the season.
In the wake of these injuries, Atlanta's defense has declined since last season, from the ninth-ranked defense to No. 26 this year. They've struggled to put together a consistent pass rush, sitting at No. 21 in the league in passing defense and No. 26 in rushing defense. So it's not just one player for Atlanta, but a combo of defensive starters. — Kalyn Kahler
Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills; Philadelphia
Back in the Eagles’ first game of this season—an 18–12 win against the Falcons—Jay Ajayi ran for two touchdowns and Ronald Darby kept Julio Jones from hauling in a touchdown. Since then, the defending Super Bowl champions have been hit hard by injuries, including the two players mentioned above, and it’s no secret that the backups have played like, well, backups. Sidney Jones, who continues to struggle with a hamstring injury himself, was consistenly beat by Cowboys WR Amari Cooper, who ran all over the Eagles for 217 yards and three touchdowns in Week 14. Now with Carson Wentz possibly out for the remainder of the season after an MRI revealed a fractured vertebrae, Philadelphia can all but wave goodbye to a title defense. — Bette Marston
Hunter Henry, TE, L.A. Chargers
My answer was going to be Hunter Henry, but that was before I learned on ESPN’s First Take that Henry has actually been not just playing all season, but playing well. — Andy Benoit
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.