"The Standard is the Standard." Mike Tomlin invokes this mantra on a regular basis, but never more than this season. He didn't say it, but he implied it in his press conference after the Broncos game:
Question: "Mike, how much of today's game was due to injuries?"
Tomlin: "You know better than that. We don't live in that world-we don't make excuses in regard to injury. The guys that we put on the field were capable of doing the job, and the reason we didn't do the job is because we didn't perform."
Well, Mike Tomlin may not live in that world, and that is admirable as an outlook, but there is no doubt that injuries, both during the course of a season and during the course of a game, are going to have an effect. To say that they don't is to be unrealistic about the differences between players. Not just the basic differences in their ability and experience, but the differences in preparation for a given game between players that practice with the first team and those that don't. However much a backup studies the playbook, he is not able to play as instinctively as the starter(s) in a position.
There is no doubt that injuries played a part in the outcome of the Denver game. There were injuries that the coaching staff knew about beforehand and could game-plan for, such as Ben's ankle and Doug Legursky's separated shoulder. (However, no amount of game planning can change the fact that the player in question is unlikely to play as well as they would were they healthy.)
There were injuries that had decimated the depth at some positions, such as both the offensive and defensive line, and there's nothing that can be done about that except to hope that no one else goes down.
And then there are the in-game injuries that can alter the whole picture. When not one but two of your remaining defensive linemen are forced to exit during the game, meaning that you only have three left, you have no choice but to play them all on every down, whether they're playing well or poorly, whether they are cramped up or exhausted from cold and lack of oxygen, or what have you. They may have to play, but they are most likely going to play less and less well as the game goes on, with the greatest heart and the best will in the world. And although it is possible that under ideal conditions they would play as well as the starters they replace, it is highly unlikely. In the much less-than-ideal circumstances of that game it is inconceivable that they should do so. It's mere hubris that would make anyone, coach or fan, assume that the backups on a given team are better than the starters they are playing against on the other team. They may be in isolated cases, but overall the advantage is in favor of the less-injured team.
"But what about the 2010 Packers?," you may cry. People spoke feelingly about the many injuries that the Packers sustained through the 2010 season and the practically unprecedented numbers of players they had on IR. The Steelers were pretty beat up last season as well, or so I thought until I saw what ‘beat up' really means, this year. I have already expressed the feeling that I was frankly relieved that they lost the first round of the playoffs, because it wasn't entirely certain who they could play.
But the Packers did it last season, right? Well, it seemed to me that there were some substantial differences between the two situations. The first is that in an uncapped season the Packers had the ability to sign substitutes for the injured players from a somewhat more expensive selection. The second was that as I recalled the majority of their injuries came during the beginning and middle of the season, and that the players that started in the Super Bowl had actually been playing together for some number of games at that point. And although their most important player, Aaron Rodgers, was injured earlier in the season and missed a game, he was back and in top form for the postseason. But before I made such a declaration I decided that it behooved me to do some research, and here's what I found.
The offense, as well as the kicking team for the Packers was as follows. Starters are in bold:
Injury Status,Super Bowl/
|QB Aaron Rodgers||1||QB Aaron Rodgers|
|QB Matt Flynn||0||QB Matt Flynn|
|LT Chad Clifton||0||LT Chad Clifton|
|LG Daryn Colledge||0||LG Daryn Colledge|
|C Scott Wells||0||C Scott Wells|
|RG Josh Sitton||0||RG Josh Sitton|
|RT Mark Tauscher||12||Placed on IR 11/12/10||N/A|
|T/G Brian Bulaga||0||T/G Brian Bulaga|
|G/C Jason Spitz||0||P/PLAYED||G/C Jason Spitz|
|T/G T. J. Lang||0||T/G T. J. Lang|
|T/G Marshall Newhouse||0*||
Placed on IR 12/31/10
|RB Ryan Grant||15||Place on IR 9/14/10||N/A|
|13||2010 6th round pick, on PUP||RB James Starks|
|RB John Kuhn||0||RB John Kuhn|
|RB Brandon Jackson||0||RB Brandon Jackson|
|FB Korey Hall||4||FB Korey Hall|
|TE Jermichael Finley||11||Placed on IR 10/18/10||N/A|
|TE Donald Lee||1||TE Donald Lee|
|TE Tom Crabtree||0||TE Tom Crabtree|
|TE Andrew Quarless||1||2010 5th round pick||TE Andrew Quarless|
|TE Spencer Havner||5||Signed off waivers, 11/10; Injured in 1st game, IR'd||TE Spencer Havner|
|WR Greg Jennings||0||P/PLAYED||WR Greg Jennings|
|WR Jordy Nelson||0||WR Jordy Nelson|
|WR James Jones||0||WR James Jones|
|WR Donald Driver||0||WR Donald Driver|
|WR Brett Swain||0||WR Brett Swain|
Total Games Missed
Injury Status,Super Bowl/
|K Mason Crosby||0||K Mason Crosby|
|P Tim Masthay||0||P Tim Masthay|
|LS Brett Goode||0||LS Brett Goode|
Kick Team, Total Games Missed
Offensive Players, Total Games Missed
*He was inactive for every game
The 2010 Packers offense was much less affected by injuries than the defense. They lost an excellent TE, Jermichael Finley, who has had a great 2011 season. He played all 16 games, and picked up 767 yards on 55 receptions, with an average of 13.9, a long of 41, and 8 TDs. That was certainly a loss. For whatever reason the Packers chose to replace him on the depth chart with a WR, James Jones, which seems to have worked out alright for them.
Running back Ryan Grant was also a loss-he was having a great season, although he hasn't impressed as much this season. Grant had 559 yards on 134 attempts in 2011, with an average of 4.2 Y/A. He had 2 rushing TDs and 1 receiving TD. His replacement, James Starks, was a rookie who struggled with a hamstring injury for much of the season. But by December he was healthy, and finished the postseason with a league-high 315 yards. He burned the #1 rushing defense in the league for 4.7 Y/C on 11 carries.
The only other offensive replacement due to injury was RT. Their starting RT, Mark Tauscher, was injured in early November, and their 1st round draft pick, Bryan Bulaga, replaced him. Apparently it was an upgrade, as Tauscher was released on July 29th, 2011, and no other team has signed him.
Only one offensive player other than RB Starks was on the Super Bowl roster that didn't in Week 1-Andrew Quarless, the 2010 6th round draft pick. He was on the active roster for the majority of the 2010 season.
Presumably they signed various other people to their practice squad when they activated players from there, but there wasn't a lot of high stakes wheeling and dealing.
So now let's look at the 2011 Steelers offense and see what that looks like:
Injury Status,Wild Card Game/
|QB Ben Roethlisberger||1||P/PLAYED||QB Ben Roethlisberger|
|QB Byron Leftwich||16||Placed on IR 8/11/11||N/A|
|QB Charlie Batch||0||QB Charlie Batch|
|QB Dennis Dixon||0||QB Dennis Dixon|
|LT Jonathan Scott||0||Replaced Starks during game||OT Jonathan Scott|
|LG Chris Kemoeatu||3||Started WC game because of OL injuries||LG Chris Kemoeatu|
|C Maurkice Pouncey||2||Q/OUT||N/A|
|RG Doug Legursky||5||P/PLAYED (had a separated shoulder, played with a harness)||C Doug Legursky|
|RT Willie Colon||15||Placed on IR 9/17/11||N/A|
|0||Injured during WC game||LT Max Starks|
|G Ramon Foster||0||RG Ramon Foster|
|OT Marcus Gilbert||1 (+1)||1 healthy scratch||RT Marcus Gilbert|
|OG Trai Essex||0||OT/G/C Trai Essex|
|0||OT Jamon Meredith|
|OT Chris Scott||0||released to make space for Max Starks||N/A|
|RB Rashard Mendenhall||1||Placed on IR 1/5/12||N/A|
|RB Isaac Redman||0||RB Isaac Redman|
|RB Mewelde Moore||5||OUT||N/A|
|RB Jonathan Dwyer||5||Placed on IR 12/8/11||N/A|
|0||activated from PS 12/14/11||RB John Clay|
|0||activated from PS 1/5/12||RB Chad Spann|
|RB Baron Batch||16||Placed on IR 8/11/11||N/A|
|FB David Johnson||0||FB David Johnson|
|TE Heath Miller||0||TE Heath Miller|
|TE Weslye Saunders||0||TE Weslye Saunders|
|WR Mike Wallace||0||WR Mike Wallace|
|WR Hines Ward||1||WR Hines Ward|
|WR Antonio Brown||0||WR Antonio Brown|
|WR Emmanuel Sanders||5||P/PLAYED||WR Emmanuel Sanders|
|3||WR Jerricho Cotchery|
|WR Arnaz Battle||6||WR Arnaz Battle|
|Total Offense Games Missed||85|
Injury Status,Wild Card Game/
|K Shaun Suisham||0||K Shaun Suisham|
|P Daniel Sepulveda||8||Placed on IR||N/A|
|0||Signed after Sepulveda injury||P Jeremy Kapinos|
|LS Greg Warren||0||LS Greg Warren|
|Total Kick Team Games Missed||8|
|Offense Players, Total Games Missed||93|
The 2010 Packers were, according to the Football Outsiders ranking, #7 in offense; the 2011 Steelers were #6 on offense. (This is rather different than the NFL figures that put the Steelers' offense on the wrong side of the middle of the league, at least in some important categories.) I would claim that, despite the many injuries that Green Bay sustained last year, they did less with more during the regular season than the 2011 Steelers did. Why do I say that? Well, let's look at just who was missing those games.
Arguably the most important player on offense is the quarterback, unless, unlike the Steelers or Packers, you have an offense that is built primarily around the run. (Are there teams like that in the NFL anymore?) So the first player to look at is the QB.
At first blush, since both Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger missed one game, that would seem to be a wash. But anybody that has followed football even a little bit this year has to be aware that Ben was playing from Week 5 on with at least one of several injuries. The first was a sprained foot, so it was back to the oversize shoe for the Titans game. This was the most benign of the injuries, in my opinion.
Next was the thumb fracture sustained in the Bengals game in mid-November. Ironically, two other QBs sustained similar injuries at that time and both of them were out for the rest of the season. Matt Cassel [KC] injured his hand in the same week as Roethlisberger and was IR'd; the week after Jay Cutler [CHI] sustained a thumb fracture that required surgery and was put on IR. Ben's fracture was luckily at the tip of his thumb, and he was able to play with a splint and a glove.
The thumb injury would pale in relation to the high ankle sprain he sustained December 8th. Sam Bradford, STL, sustained a high ankle sprain the previous week and missed the remainder of the season. Ben only sat out one game, but many felt that the team would have been better served had he sat out at least two more. Certainly he never again played a consistently good game after the sprain, and who can feel surprised at that? The surprise is that he managed to be effective at all.
And it is worth mentioning at this juncture that Ben's designated back-up QB was injured and IR'd at the end of the pre-season. Not to take anything away from Charlie Batch, but the team wouldn't have bothered to sign Byron Leftwich if they had felt completely happy with Charlie as the back-up.
Aaron Rodgers' injury in 2010 was, by comparison, mild, at least in the short term. He suffered a concussion in the Week 5 game but was able to return for Week 6. A second concussion in Week 14 kept him out of the Week 15 game. However, he was back, good as new, in Week 16. While everyone is rightly concerned about the long-range implications of concussions, it's easy to see why players like James Harrison feel that a concussion is no big deal in comparison to blowing out somebody's knee. It may be short-sighted, but it is understandable. At any rate, Rodgers was in top form going into the playoffs. Ben, conversely, was maybe at 50% by Week 18.
The next position to consider isn't a single position but a unit, because it is arguably the second most import thing on offense, and if it isn't functioning as a unit, it scarcely matters how good the individual pieces are. And if it isn't functioning reasonably well it makes life really difficult for the rest of the offense, both the running game and the passing game. I speak, of course, about the offensive line.
The 2010 Packers were incredibly lucky there. There was a single offensive lineman that missed any game time at all, and that was RT Mark Tauscher. Fortunately, the Packers first-round pick in 2010 was T/G Brian Bulaga, and fortunately Tauscher's injury occurred mid-season. As a result Bulaga was slotted into a fully-functioning unit and had half a season to learn the intricacies of his position at the NFL level. By the time the Packers reached the Super Bowl he was an accomplished lineman-so much so that the Packers released Tauscher during the off-season. Since he is currently a free agent, presumably his upside was on the way down in 2010. In fact, the only lineman to appear on the injury report just prior to the Super Bowl was LT Chad Clifton, and he played.
The Steelers' offensive line in 2011, conversely, might have gelled into a pretty decent unit, as happened in 2010 by the playoffs, had it ever had the opportunity to gel. But it is pretty hard to gel when you have to start a new combination of linemen for 10 out of 16 games, and when in-game injuries are forcing shuffling of the line and lack of depth is causing injured linemen to re-enter or start games.
The first to go down was Willie Colon, the RT, who had just signed a big new contract after missing a year on IR. He was injured in Week 1. He was replaced by Marcus Gilbert, a rookie who had not had the luxury of OTAs before the season to help ease him into the NFL, as Bulaga did the year before. Gilbert missed only two games. (One of those was a benching for being late to a team meeting.) He was playing with a shoulder injury for part of the season. But rather than go through each lineman, perhaps it would be most instructive to look at the linemen on the injury report for each week and the starting lineup for each game, as that tells the tale about as well as anything. A starting lineup that is the same as the previous week will be in bold.
Week 1 Injury Report: Marcus Gilbert, concussion, Probable (he was on the roster but did not play.)
Week 1 Starting O-line: Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Legursky, Colon
Week 1 In-game replacements: Essex
Week 2 Injury Report: Chris Kemoeatu, knee, Questionable
Week 2 Starting O-line: Scott, Foster, Pouncey, Legursky, Gilbert
Week 2 In-game replacements: C. Scott
Week 3 Injury Report: Maurkice Pouncey, hamstring, Questionable
Week 3 Starting O-line: Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Legursky, Gilbert
Week 3 In-game replacements: Foster, Essex
Week 4 Injury Report: Doug Legursky, shoulder, Out; Jonathan Scott, Ankle, Out
Week 4 Starting O-line: Essex, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 4 In-game replacements: C. Scott
Week 5 Injury Report: Chris Kemoeatu, knee, Out
Week 5 Starting O-line: Max Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 5 In-game replacements: Meredith, J. Scott, Essex
Week 6 Injury Report: Chris Kemoeatu, knee, Out; Marcus Gilbert, shoulder, Out
Week 6 Starting O-line: Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, J. Scott
Week 6 In-game replacements: Meredith, Essex
Week 7 Injury Report: Doug Legursky, toe, Out, Maurkice Pouncey, elbow, Probable
Week 7 Starting O-line: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 7 In-game replacements: J. Meredith, J. Scott, Essex
Week 8 Injury Report: Doug Legursky, toe, Out
Week 8 Starting O-line: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 8 In-game replacements: J. Meredith, J. Scott, Essex
Week 9 Injury Report: Doug Legursky, toe, Out, Jonathan Scott, Ankle, Probable
Week 9 Starting O-line: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 9 In-game replacements: J. Scott, Essex
Week 10 Injury Report: Doug Legursky, toe, Probable
Week 10 Starting O-line: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 10 In-game replacements: J. Scott, Essex
Week 12 Injury Report: No offensive linemen on report
Week 12 Starting O-line: Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 12 In-game replacements: Kemoeatu, Essex
Week 13 Injury Report: Maurkice Pouncey, Illness, Probable (he started the game and had to come out almost immediately)
Week 13 Starting O-line: Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 13 In-game replacements: Kemoeatu, J. Scott, Essex
Week 14 Injury Report: Ramon Foster, ankle, Probable, Maurkice Pouncey, ankle, Probable
Week 14 Starting O-line: Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 14 In-game replacements: Kemoeatu, J. Scott, Essex
Week 15 Injury Report: Maurkice Pouncey, ankle, Out, Marcus Gilbert, Illness, Probable
Week 15 Starting O-line: Starks, Essex, Legursky, Foster, Gilbert
Week 15 In-game replacements: Kemoeatu
Week 16 Injury Report: Maurkice Pouncey, ankle, Probable
Week 16 Starting O-line: Starks, Essex, Legursky, Foster, Scott
Week 16 In-game replacements: Kemoeatu, Gilbert
Week 17 Injury Report: Doug Legursky, shoulder, Out, Maurkice Pouncey, ankle, Probable
Week 17 Starting O-line: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Gilbert
Week 17 In-game replacements: Essex (had to come in for Pouncey and play center)
There were two line combinations that worked together more than one week at a time. The line of Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, and Gilbert started every week from Week 7 - 10, and after the bye week Starks, Legursky, Pouncey, Foster, and Gilbert started Weeks 12, 13, and 14. But even this information doesn't tell the whole story. In Week 13 Maurkice Pouncey started, although he had a bad case of stomach flu, and he had to be replaced after the first series. So even though it looks as if that was the same line combination, Legursky had to move over to center and Kemoeatu had to come back in. Kemo wasn't the starter at that point for a reason, and the line was not improved by that move. Ben was sacked five times that game, hurried 13 times, and had his thumb fractured in the bargain.
There was only a single week during which at least one offensive lineman was not on the injury report, and that was at the end of the bye. That to me is an astonishing statistic, and not in a good way.
Now, on to the skill positions.
Both last year's Packers and this year's Steelers lost their top running back. However, the Packers lost their back during the Week 1 game. The bulk of the offensive games missed for GB was in the RB/FB position-32 total. (Yes, they actually have a FB, but not John Kuhn-he is listed as an RB. I noticed that their FB was active in the Super Bowl, but was not a starter.)
The Steelers lost Rashard Mendenhall in Week 17. The Steelers' RBs missed almost as much time as the Packers'-27 games. The difference was that the Steelers lost them all at the end of the season, so that by the Wild Card game they were down to a single experienced RB, and were forced to activate two rookies off the practice squad. However, Redman had a career day in the Wild Card game. He certainly wasn't the reason the Steelers lost.
Probably the biggest offensive loss to the Packers was TE Jermichael Finley. Although they had other TEs on the roster the coaches replaced Finley with a couple of WRs whose names the Steelers learned to their cost-James Jones and Jordy Nelson. (There were no TEs listed on the Super Bowl starting lineup, but there were three TEs on the active roster.) The Packers' WRs missed a grand total of 0 games in 2010. That's pretty good. The TEs made up for that-including Finley's 11 games, the TEs missed a total of 18 games. (However, 5 of those were missed by a guy they picked up off waivers who was injured on ST in his first game.)
Conversely, the Steelers' TEs missed no games, but the WRs missed quite a few. Because the Steelers had so much depth at the WR position in 2011 the injuries to special teams captain Arnaz Battle, 2011 signing Jerricho Cotchery, and promising 2nd year player Emmanuel Sanders were not as problematic as they otherwise might have been. The three men missed 14 games between them, and Hines missed one, making a total of 15 games missed.
Hines Ward took a helmet to the back of the head, courtesy of Ray Lewis, during the second BAL game, and never seemed to quite be the same. His best game after that was 5 receptions for 30 yards. Prior to the BAL game he had, in 7 games, 26 receptions for 258 yards. After the BAL game he had, in 7 games, 20 receptions for 123 yards. It's possible that his "demotion" was due to nagging injuries as much as it was to age.
The 2011 Steelers had five offensive players on the active roster for the Wild Card game that weren't active during Week 1. In fact, 4 of them weren't on the roster at all during Week 1 (LT Max Starks, P Jeremy Kapinos, RB John Clay, RB Chad Spann.) Of those four, Starks and Kapinos were obviously established players by the end of the season, but Clay and Spann were new. How new?
Clay was waived at the end of training camp and then signed to the practice squad. He was signed to the active squad on December 23rd, and played in the December 24th game. Spann was a UFDA that was cut by both the Colts and Tampa Bay. The Steelers signed him to the practice squad on December 12th, and activated him on January 4th.
So far my hunch is half right. It doesn't look as if the Packers did a lot of high-priced signing last season, but so far it looks to me like the people that were injured, and the timing of when they were injured, were on the whole much less problematic for the 2010 Packers than the 2011 Steelers.
That may sound fairly obvious, given that they won the Super Bowl last year and the Steelers exited the playoffs after the first round, but my point is that it wasn't that the Packers had some extra-large component of heart, or much better coaching, or whatever, that took them all the way, and that the 2011 Steelers lacked. But the defensive side of the equation may tell another tale. To be continued...