Injuries hurt. We see the player, maybe our favorite player or a key player on our favorite team, writhing on the turf and holding back tears as he’s carted off the field. For those of us with empathy, it’s one of the worst sights sports can bring. But by the time the player vanishes into the tunnel, headed for doctors, X-rays, and more, the focus shifts to “next man up.”
I hate that phrase.
By definition, the team is worse. Every time a coach or journalist says “next man up”, just think “second string,” because that’s what he’s really saying. An injury by definition takes a team down the depth chart and the team has taken months and years to construct that roster in a certain way. There are role splits in the NFL which are technically different than a pure depth movement, but an injury disrupts those roles. As an example, a third-down back now has to play first down.
So did the injuries this season, specifically ones that occurred in the playoffs, change the outcomes? First, we have to define how we assess this. In some cases, the replacement was adequate. The case of Dak Prescott taking over for Tony Romo as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys is one of these. Prescott was more than adequate, pushing Romo to the bench even after he was healthy (and soon, out of Dallas altogether.)
The case of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s is tougher to judge. Obviously, the Patriots did pretty well without him, but with their star tight end, would they have been better? Could Gronkowski’s presence have robbed us of the Patriots’ fourth-quarter comeback? By overcoming injuries, the “what if” scenarios get very difficult to quantify. Usually, we have to credit the planning — remember when people wondered why they signed Martellus Bennett? — and the coaching that adjusted around the issue.
Of the injuries that affected the playoffs, the clearest had to be the quarterback injuries to the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. Losing Ryan Tannehill and Derek Carr had huge effects, though the play of their backup quarterbacks shows how differently these teams scouted themselves. Carr had a lock on the position, but neither backup could handle the position credibly. Matt Moore was in place in Miami largely because he had proven that he could and once again, did. Regardless of how much further the teams could have gone with their starters, it’s clear they would have had a much better chance save the injuries.
The Atlanta Falcons, like the Patriots, went very far despite a severe injury to wide receiver Julio Jones. Jones’ turf toe is going to be monitored as he rests this offseason, and surgery hasn’t been ruled out. Jones’ history of foot problems is concerning, but the Falcons’ new stadium next year has new, highly-touted turf. The key though will be the preparation. There are rumors the field will be getting the new underlay the NFL has touted. The medical staff was able to keep Jones productive, but it’s a “what if” as to how much better he could have been.
The final injury that may have affected the playoffs is perhaps the most intriguing. Could a J.J. Watt and Jadaveon Clowney combo have changed how the Houston Texans defense stacked up against the Patriots? Maybe not, though all season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s kryptonite had been a good pass rush (as it is for most non-mobile quarterbacks.) The Texans have seldom had both Watt and Clowney on the field during their tenures, as both have struggled with injuries. Both should be able to return after surgeries, but we’ll have to see if the Texans can finally keep both of them healthy.