This weekend the Vikings lost Dalvin Cook for the rest of the season.
The Patriots lost Julian Edelman before the season even started. They’ve lost Rob Gronkowski routinely every year it seems for long stretches of the season. They lost Tom Brady the first four games too last year- suspended. But they still won the Super Bowl.
Lots of teams lose key players for the season, and with increasing frequency it seems. The NFL hasn’t come up with a penalty that eliminates ACL tears, which more than any other injury have become the scourge of the NFL.
Back when the Purple People Eaters were terrorizing QBs, linebackers led with their helmets and whacking defenseless receivers into kingdom come was part of the game plan, it seemed like players seldomly suffered season-ending injuries. I’m not sure if anybody tore their ACL until at least the 1990s.
The old joke- I think it was Yogi Berra quipped when asked why more players were suffering from muscle injuries- “it’s because they have more muscles to injure.”
Perhaps more accurate is that players are simply bigger and stronger and faster and put more strain on their muscles and have more capacity to injure than those pot-bellied guys smoking on the sidelines of yesteryear.
Whatever the case, season-ending injuries are as much a part of today’s NFL as spread formations, obnoxious endzone celebrations and instant replay.
Next Man Up
But as frustrating, heartbreaking and demoralizing as it is as fans - and I’m sure for players too - to see a player suffer a season-ending injury, ‘next man up’ needs to be the rallying call in its wake.
It’s not a curse to have a key player go down for the season these days. It’s normal. In just the NFC North this year, the Lions lost their starting left-tackle, it what would have been a season-ending injury had it not happened early enough in the off-season, and still he’ll be lost for the first half of the season at least. The Bears lost their best WR for the season, and first-round WR pick Kevin White too-again. The Packers have a host of injuries to starting tackles, RB, DE, CB, and Edge Rusher. So far no season-ending, but last year they lost their best CB early on, and the year before that their best WR.
And any given week as many as a handful of starters could be out for a given team.
The truth is, when the injuries come - and they will - the best thing you can hope for is that your team doesn’t lose more players than average, or too many in one position group. The Vikings faced that predicament last season.
The only saving grace is that injuries effect other teams too, even when players are not lost for the season. Players play hurt, and that can turn an All-Pro into a liability on the field. Key players are also lost for shorter stretches too. Managing injuries needs to be part of the on-going game plan, not an excuse for poor play, on both sides of the ball.
Coaches need to game plan to take advantage of other teams weaknesses, while also game-planning to cover their own. That hasn’t changed. What’s changed is more teams are likely to have more weaknesses due to injuries than in years past.
Unfortunately there’s no secret to avoiding injury. Ironically Dalvin Cook said in his interview last week that, “if you take care of your body, your body takes care of you.“ But sadly, there’s just no tried-and-true way to prevent ACL injuries. It wasn’t that he didn’t work hard or anything else he should have done. It just happened- just as it does pretty much every week in the NFL - and usually to multiple players - boom. Season-ending injury. That’s the price for bigger, faster, stronger athletes: more frequent and more severe injuries.
Rolling With the Punches
As injuries become more commonplace, good coaching becomes even more important. Having a good quarterback does too.
Good coaching not only because you need to coach up not just the most talented, but also the less talented backups who inevitably will be called up to replace an injured starter. Good coaching is also important when it comes to game-planning. You never know when a key player may go down and compromise the game plan on either side of the ball. Being able to effectively adapt a scheme or game plan on short notice, or even during a game, to deal with an injured player(s) has never been more important. Equally, being able to coach an increasingly younger team through multiple injuries to key players during the course of a season, without losing focus or determination, is an increasingly difficult and demanding task. The adversity every team faces, especially in the wake of key injuries, can easily result in reduced performance. Being able to coach players through that adversity without letting it effect their performance, or their own, may be the toughest job for any head coach. Getting players to, “just do their job” is easier said than done, as great a focus tool as that mantra is.
In any case, it’s no secret that perennial playoff teams - and there aren’t that many of them - usually have coaches and an organization able to plug and play through injuries during the course of the season without long stretches of poor performance.
A good quarterback is also even more important as injuries become more frequent. The reason is simple. More than any other position by far, a quarterback is able to take advantage of other team’s weaknesses on defense, while also being in the best position to minimize his own team’s weaknesses on offense. He still needs some weapons to work with, but no other position has anywhere near the impact in executing a game plan to take advantage of, or minimize the impact of, injuries than a good, veteran quarterback.
Defense down a CB? A good QB will target the backup. Lost a left-tackle? A good QB will get rid of the ball quicker or roll away from possible pressure. And so it goes. Usually in coordination with coaches and adapted game plans.
In the modern day equivalent of the old Roman gladiator matches- only most of today’s gladiators are millionaires- there is a battle of attrition to win, along with enough games to make the post-season. As fall turns to winter, few players are 100% healthy, so learning how to beat the other guys as a team, despite all the various injuries, is a key test every team must overcome. It’s part of the drill. Not part of a curse.
Vikings shouldn't let losing a RB wreck a season in week 4. They have Murray and an improved line. This league is about survival, attrition— Mark Craig (@markcraignfl) October 2, 2017
Besides starting QB, which position is the biggest loss for a team to overcome?
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Best running back
Starting left tackle
Best wide receiver
Best defensive lineman