An InjuryEpidemic Alters the Landscape of the League
This is an article from the Nov. 10, 2008 issue
Three days afterwatching his starting and backup quarterbacks get sent to the sideline hurt inthe same game, Chiefs president Carl Peterson made the news official. Like anyfranchise that places players on injured reserve and ends their seasons, KansasCity had to write an e-mail to the league offices in New York City providingnames (Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard), the players' injuries (torn kneeligaments for Croyle, torn thumb ligaments for Huard) and the date they werehurt (Oct. 19, against the Titans). And with a click of the send button,Peterson dispatched the electronic obituary for the Chiefs' 2008 prospects.
"It's beenthe kind of year I hope I never endure again," says Peterson, whose 1--7team is now in the hands of second-year quarterback Tyler Thigpen, aseventh-round pick from Coastal Carolina. "I have never been involved inlosing this many quarterbacks this quickly."
Injuries began totake their toll just minutes into the season. With 7:27 left in the firstquarter (against the Chiefs) on Sept. 7, Tom Brady took a hit to the knee andcrumpled to the ground in New England with a torn left ACL and MCL. Theleague's biggest name was lost for the rest of '08, and the balance of power,once skewed heavily to the AFC, shifted toward the NFC.
While injuriesfluctuate from year to year, it's the sheer number of sidelined A-listers thatstands out in the first half of this one. There are All-Pros missing all ormost of the season: Brady, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora (torn meniscus inpreseason), Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman (on IR after Week 1 with tornknee ligaments), Pats safety Rodney Harrison (lost for the season with tornright quad in Week 7). Other big names have missed significant time: Bengalsquarterback Carson Palmer (right elbow, five games and counting), Colts safetyBob Sanders (high ankle sprain, five games), Steelers running back WillieParker (sprained knee, four games), Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (pinkie,expected to miss three games), Eagles running back Brian Westbrook (ankle andribs, two games) Saints running back Reggie Bush (torn meniscus, at least twogames), Ravens running back Willis McGahee (knee and ankle, two games) andColts running back Joseph Addai (hamstring, two games). Even marqueeattractions playing through injury—Peyton Manning and his staph infection,LaDainian Tomlinson and his turf toe—have struggled.
"You haveinjuries all the time, but it gets a lot of attention when stars like Brady orBush get hurt," says fullback Tony Richardson of the Jets, one of the AFCEast teams whose postseason prospects have been boosted by Brady's absence."You scheme and you draft around the people you have. You bring in a RandyMoss because you have a Tom Brady. You might draft [differently on one side ofthe defense] because you have a Shawne Merriman on the other side.Unfortunately, injuries are part of our game, and you have to adjust."
Before the salarycap, a team could afford having Steve Young around to back up Joe Montana. Nowa Super Bowl contender is one hit away from starting a fortysomething like BradJohnson in Dallas or an unknown quantity like Matt Cassel in New England. Jetsgeneral manager Mike Tannenbaum has a term for leaving enough salary-cap spaceto address needs that arise because of injuries: fudge money. Tannenbaumlearned such contingency planning during Bill Parcells's stretch as Jets coachand executive from 1997 to 2000. A decade later, it's as relevant as ever.Still, says New York coach Eric Mangini, "It's hard when you lose a guy whocounts significantly against the cap. You obviously don't get that cashback."
Nor can you planfor every injury. "You try to build a strong roster that has some depthbecause you're going to lose players," Texans coach Gary Kubiak says."But to sit there and say you're going to prepare to lose a Tom Brady, Idon't know how you do that. Because they don't make [a lot of] thoseguys."
As the leagueconsiders a significant change in the schedule—cutting the preseason to two orthree games from four and extending the regular season to 17 or 18 games from16—questions about injuries will only become more pronounced. An 18-gameregular season would mean six to seven more hours of bruising punishment,exposing stars and journeymen alike. Browns tight end Darnell Dinkins says thatwhether the schedule has 20 games with 16 in the regular season or 20 with 18in the regular season, the perils of the NFL will remain. "When you've gottwo objects trying to occupy the same space," Dinkins says, "somethingbad's going to happen."
When the Ramsbroke the huddle early in the third quarter against Dallas on Oct. 19, tightend Anthony Becht lined up at left tackle, and left tackle Adam Goldberg joggedto the right side of the line outside right tackle Alex Barron. A few Cowboysdefenders looked around, as if to say, "What the..." But before theycould adjust, St. Louis quick-snapped, and quarterback Marc Bulger handed theball to tailback Steven Jackson, who burst through the hole sealed off byGoldberg, fullback Dan Kreider and receiver Torry Holt, flanked right. Dallashad kept a safety over the top of Becht instead of identifying Goldberg as thetight end and shifting the safety over. The rarely used unbalanced line gavethe Rams an overwhelming advantage on the right side, and Jackson's 56-yardtouchdown run finished off the Cowboys in a 34--14 upset.
Miami's Wildcatformation—the direct snap to a running back, with the quarterback split wide—isthe most-talked-about offensive trick of the first half of 2008. The Dolphinshave run it 41 times, for a gaudy 7.0 yards per play and six touchdowns, and ithas been replicated by six teams. "But that's not the only thing offensesare doing," Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz says. "I'm seeingmore gimmicky stuff than I've seen in recent years. Seems like every week we'repreparing for something strange."
The Cardinalshave used three defensive players on offense, and had a wide receiver, arunning back and a punter throw passes. At least four offenses have tried tocatch defenses napping with unbalanced lines in the season's first half; theBrowns used such a scheme to throw a 51-yard fourth-down pass to tight endSteve Heiden at Jacksonville in Week 8. That same Sunday the Ravens stunned theRaiders by lining up two quarterbacks in the backfield. One, Joe Flacco, tookthe snap and handed off to the other, Troy Smith, who then threw a 43-yardcompletion—to Flacco.
Why all thegimmickry this year? "Technology," says Rams offensive coordinator AlSaunders, who called the unbalanced-line play that stumped the Cowboys. Hespoke from his office last week, taking a break from game planning for theCardinals on Sunday. "Here I am, looking at every third-down snap Arizonahas run in the last seven games, and I'm able to do that because our videosystems are so far advanced over what they were a few years ago. I've seeneverything Arizona does on defense in every situation. What we try to do isgain an alignment advantage at the snap of the ball, which is how we made thatplay against Dallas. If you're willing to think outside the box these days, yougive your team a chance—because that's what 31 other teams, with the sametechnology, are trying to do."
The teamsemploying such trickery have something in common: With the exception of theexplosive Cardinals, who lead the NFL in points per game (29.2), they're mostlystruggling to score with conventional schemes. Miami, Baltimore, Cleveland andSt. Louis are all averaging 21.4 points or less. So why not try to pullsomething out of a hat?
On the fourthplay from scrimmage on Oct. 19, Steelers receiver Hines Ward laid out Bengalsrookie linebacker Keith Rivers with a blindside block that broke Rivers's jawand ended his season. Ward's hit didn't draw a flag, and he must have beensurprised when it didn't draw a fine from the NFL either. The best blockingwideout of his era, Ward has twice been docked by the league this year for hitson plays that weren't penalized during the game. In all, such hits have costSteelers players $50,000 in fines in the first half of the season, promptingteam brass to call the NFL for a clarification of league policy—and someSteelers players to complain that the team is being singled out.
It's not. The NFLis coming down hard on anyone it views as jeopardizing player safety—whether ornot the on-field refs spot a transgression. Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack andJets safety Eric Smith have been suspended and fined for one game each for hitsthat the league deemed flagrant, while Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson wasdocked $25,000 for a helmet-to-helmet blow to Bills quarterback TrentEdwards.
Says Ward, "Iunderstand when it comes to hits on the quarterback, but any other position?It's hard to sit there and tell everybody it's a violent sport but tone it downa little. When I go across the middle, those guys aren't going to tackle mesoftly and lay me down to the ground. That's not football. I find it ironicthat now you see a receiver delivering blows, and it's an issue. But I haven'tchanged. I've been doing it this way for 11 years."
Front-officeexecs contend that the number of fines and suspensions this season isn't out ofthe ordinary. "This has been going on for the last few years, even underthe prior commissioner," says Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo. "The officialscan't see everything. And some things are pointed out by other teams that askthe league to review them. We don't want dirty play. We don't want unnecessaryroughness. Everybody knows where clean and dirty are."
The NFL's rookiecoaching class of 2008 was a starless group. A longtime special teams coach gotthe job in Baltimore. A little-known defensive coordinator took over inAtlanta. A line coach deep in Bill Parcells's shadow in Dallas became part ofhis mentor's rebuilding project in Miami. And an old scrambling quarterbackwith no experience as a head coach or coordinator replaced Joe Gibbs inWashington.
The returns havebeen surprisingly good. That foursome was a combined 20--12 through Sunday, andthree of the teams were over .500. Here's how each coach has made adifference.
John Harbaugh,Ravens. It's not easy to come in as the new sheriff of a team dominated by ahigh-achieving, veteran defensive core. Harbaugh was smart. He told the playersthat every decision would be based on what they did now, not on theirreputations, and that he wouldn't shy away from lineup changes. He assertedcontrol by running a much harder training camp than predecessor Brian Billick,though players groused about it. He also benched three-time Pro Bowl cornerbackChris McAlister in Week 7. "We've had two two-hour conversations in thelast few days," Harbaugh said last week of McAlister, who'd been a startersince early in his rookie year of 1999. "I'm always going to tell playersjust where they stand."
Mike Smith,Falcons. In his first week on the job, the former Jaguars coordinator walkedthrough the practice facility and introduced himself to each of the team'sestimated 160 employees. His predecessor, Bobby Petrino, never met threequarters of those people. "This is not my team," Smith told employeeafter employee. "This is our team." In April he and new general managerThomas Dimitroff ignored the crying need for defense in the first round andchose Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan and USC left tackle Sam Baker. Bothlook as if they'll be fixtures in Atlanta. So does Smith.
Tony Sparano,Dolphins. As the team flew east after a 21-point loss at Arizona in Week 2,Sparano decided the playbook needed a jolt. He installed a scheme that hisquarterbacks coach, David Lee, had used in 2007 as the offensive play-caller atArkansas—Lee sometimes called for direct snaps to Darren McFadden to makedefenses deal with McFadden and fellow tailback Felix Jones (both of whom wouldbe 2008 first-round picks) on the same play. "We wanted to get [runningbacks] Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, two of our best players, on the fieldat once," Sparano said. The Dolphins' Wildcat formation accounted for fourtouchdowns the next Sunday in a 38--13 rout of New England.
Jim Zorn,Redskins. Team owner Dan Snyder wanted a superb quarterbacks coach to work withhis 2005 first-round pick, Jason Campbell. Zorn, who had excelled in that rolewith the Seahawks, vowed he'd work one-on-one with Campbell for at least anhour a day, every day, building the confidence and independence a quarterbackneeds to succeed. In training camp that commitment was more like three hours aday, Zorn teaching and watching and cajoling. The dedication has paid off.Through eight weeks Campbell was the league's fifth-rated quarterback, withzero interceptions in 230 attempts. He'd thrown for more yards than Brett Favreand had a better completion percentage than Peyton Manning. Campbell'sfirst-half play is the biggest reason the Redskins are challenging for theirdivision—just one of the many surprises in a turbulent 2008.
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