The NFL and its fans are so unforgiving that when injuries strike, there is often little recognition of what impact it may have on the team. Media types and casual observers go from signing your praises to telling you all the ways that you are overrated.
Yet throughout the course of this early season, we’ve seen a number of injuries to some well known and not-so-well known players with tremendous implications for teams around the league. And the hits just keep on coming.
Here’s a quick look around the league:
- Jamal Williams. Defensive Tackle – San Diego Chargers. It is arguable that no single injury has had greater significance to any team than the loss of this defensive anchor. With Williams, the Chargers are a dynamic, aggressive, run-stuffing 3-4 unit capable of beating anyone on any given Sunday. With Williams, the Chargers have knocked the Indianapolis Colts out of the playoffs for two consecutive seasons (at Indy and at home). Without Williams, the Chargers are an undersized unit of scramblers incapable of stopping the run. San Diego has yet to recover from his loss — and if they lose to Denver tonight, the chances of making the playoffs will get incredibly slim.
- Brian Urlacher. Middle linebacker – Chicago Bears. As important as Urlacher has been to the Bears, his loss did not trigger a downward spiral in performance. He was capably replaced by Hunter Hillenmeyer until…
- Hunter Hillenmayer. Middle linebacker – Chicago Bears. Hillenmeyer is one of the best linebackers that no one knows. He has played for years in the ample shadows of Urlacher and Lance Briggs (no shame there). Hillenmeyer was injured vs. the Lions. The Bears are down to Nick Roach — “and he ain’t half bad neither.”
- Maake Kemoeatu. Defensive Tackle – Carolina Panthers. Remember when the Panthers could stop the run? In the first 3 weeks of this season, the Panthers surrendered 185, 151, and 212 on the ground. When you combine such poor run defense with an interception prone quarterback, your team is bound to lose. The Panthers continue to struggle for everything they get.
- Darnell Stapleton. Right Guard – Pittsburgh Steelers. When the season began, the Steelers offensive line was roundly assailed as being a critical weakness. Six weeks later, the Steelers have the No. 1 passing offense (by yards) in the NFL. Stapleton’s replacement, Trai Essex, has struggled. He’s been the target of opposing teams seeking to impose their will on the offense. The Steeler offense, for all of its success in moving the ball, has yet to find its way with any consistency in the Red Zone. The loss of Stapleton has been a factor in their inability to close out road wins at Chicago and at Cincinnati. And that’s to say nothing of…
- Troy Polamalu. Strong Safety – Pittsburgh Steelers. Before Polamalu was injured in Week 1 vs. the Titans, the Steelers offense was already immersed in a struggle to deal with the loss of Stapleton. The team managed to win that game. (Does anyone remember the toothless Titans lament about lucky field goals? Six weeks later, they’re on the wrong side of a 59-0 beat down.) Polamalu’s impact is obvious. When 2 losses come at the hands of pass completions to receivers Johnny Knox and Andre Caldwell – you know his value. With Troy, this team is probably 6-0.
- Frank Gore. Running back – San Francisco 49ers. A few weeks ago, the 49ers were the talk of the NFC (after the Saints and Giants). Mike Singletary was firmly in control. Vernon Davis was born again as a team captain. The defense had just abused the Seahawks and Cardinals. The Niners had announced themselves on the world stage and assumed command of the relatively weak NFC West. 56 minutes through a road game at the Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers had managed to mitigate the loss of Frank Gore by hanging on to a precarious lead — but then it all came tumbling down. The 49ers had the ball with only a few minutes remaining. They couldn’t get a first down. They couldn’t get 10 measly yards. They punted…the Vikings scored and the wheels began to come off. The next week, Atlanta came to down and destroyed the veneer of redemption that hid San Francisco’s weaknesses. The 49ers have been exposed as a team capable of going only so far as Shaun Hill can carry them. That’s not very far.
- Aaron Ross and Kenny Phillips. Cornerback and Safety – New York Giants. New Orleans 48, New York 27. What more need be said? The Giants will not face many teams with the arsenal of the Saints. They don’t run the risk of exposure and embarrassment every week. But the Giants cannot get to the Super Bowl until these players get back on the field — or until their replacements elevate their performance. It’s time to step it up.
- Antwaan Odom. Defensive End – Cincinnati Bengals. Odom was leading the league in sacks — but he did get 5 of those in one game. (Remember watching Jared Allen vs. Green Bay and thinking he was the greatest thing since sliced bread? Odom menaced Rodgers all day and allowed Carson Palmer to look like Brett one month earlier.) Without Odom, the Bengals will need to look elsewhere for a pass rush. Since Odom entered the season with so few career sacks, I’m sure the hunt was on before.