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Injuries dictate success

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  • Injuries dictate success

    Best on paper vs. paper cuts: Injuries dictate success
    Aug. 25, 2004
    By Clark Judge Senior Writer

    Shortly after the Philadelphia Eagles opened training camp, team president Joe Banner was asked to assess the club assembled in front of him. He nodded and proclaimed it the best of the past five years -- with one important qualification.

    "It's the best on paper," he said. "Hopefully, we can stay healthy."

    Well, they haven't, and the best team on paper is suddenly minus a couple of significant starters: defensive end N.D. Kalu and running back Correll Buckhalter. It's a painful reminder that while you can crown preseason favorites like Philadelphia and New England on paper, titles are more likely to be decided in trainers' rooms.

    I know, I know, a year ago New England overcame nearly 90 games lost by starters and won the Super Bowl, but that's not rare; it's downright unheard of. Philadelphia overcame the losses of key defensive linemen and cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, too, to make it to the NFC Championship Game.

    But they were the exceptions. The New York Giants were more the norm, losing three-quarters of their secondary as they dropped their final eight games. Denver was 9-2 when it had quarterback Jake Plummer and 1-4 when it didn't. The Jets were OK, as long as Chad Pennington was around ... which he wasn't for six games.

    That doesn't mean you can't overcome losses; it just means it complicates the process. And it's getting complicated for some unfortunate clubs out there. I don't know who will suffer the most this season, but I have an idea who's suffering the most now.

    Will the few, the proud, the crippled please sign in?

    1. Philadelphia Eagles: Two weeks ago Vincent said the Eagles would miss running back Duce Staley most, and now you know why. For the second time in three years the club will play without Buckhalter, which was OK in 2002 because Staley was around. Now he's not, and the Eagles were reduced to re-signing veteran Dorsey Levens, who knows the system and played with the club but is way, way past his prime. Without Buckhalter, out for the season with a knee injury, the Eagles are reduced to Brian Westbrook, Levens and Reno Mahe. Westbrook is versatile but can he hold up for 16 games? He couldn't last year, and he was part of a three-man rotation then. Buckhalter's injury came within days of the loss of Kalu, who produced 13 sacks the past two seasons. He's out for the year with a torn ACL, and that's a blow for a club looking to upgrade its pass rush. It's also an all-too-familiar story in Philadelphia, where the Eagles last year started subtracting defensive linemen in training camp and two years ago won without starting quarterback Donovan McNabb.

    2. St. Louis Rams: Uh-oh, the Rams just lost their top cornerback. Travis Fisher broke his arm in Monday's loss to Kansas City and may be out for the season, and that's trouble when you're trying to win a division with Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck aiming at you ... or, rather, at Kevin Garrett or DeJuan Groce. "Tell you what I'd do," said an NFC player personnel director. "I'd move Aeneas Williams there for some plays. They're going to need help." What makes the Rams' situation more difficult is that their offensive line is unsettled, partly because Orlando Pace isn't there and partly because Kyle Turley is hurt. Yep, that's another injury that might determine what happens to this team. Turley was bothered by a sore back that required offseason surgery, and he re-injured himself in camp. "There are some things that could be seriously wrong," he said at the time. No one's sure what's going on with Turley, but all indications are that he could miss the season. If and when Pace returns, Grant Williams takes over for Turley; if he doesn't the Rams are minus two premier tackles.

    3. Arizona Cardinals: Dennis Green says he can win with this year's Cardinals, and if he's right you can make him your coach of the year ... correction, coach of the decade -- right now. This team wasn't much when he signed on, and now Green is minus his best back and receiver. Running back Marcel Shipp is out for the season with a broken leg, while Anquan Boldin -- last year's offensive rookie of the year -- is lost until at least the end of October with a knee injury. Without Shipp the Cardinals are left with Emmitt Smith, which would be great if this were 1994 instead of 2004. It's not. Boldin and rookie Larry Fitzgerald would have made a solid 1-2 punch at wide receiver. Now you drop down to Bryant Johnson, and good luck. But why stop there? You can subtract defensive tackle Kenny King, too. King, who broke his right wrist, isn't exactly a household name, but he was good enough in practices that Green was willing to move Darnell Dockett to defensive end to make room for him.

    4. Washington Redskins: OK, so they lost only one starter, but that one starter was indispensable: right tackle Jon Jansen. All he does is cover quarterback Mark Brunell's back. One of the game's top tackles, Jansen was lost for the year when he ruptured an Achilles' tendon in the preseason opener. The Redskins moved Kenyatta Jones into the starting lineup, but let's face it: They will struggle to replace Jansen, who would have blocked Eagles defensive end Jevon Kearse and the New York Giants' Michael Strahan. Jones started 11 games for New England in 2002, but he's no more than adequate, and recently signed Marcus Spriggs won't help. "There's a dropoff and a big dropoff," said an NFC scout. "I mean, in run blocking, pass blocking, the works. I look for them to use a tight end over there to chip guys and try to help out that position."

    5. Miami Dolphins: I don't care what you think of Dave Wannstedt; you have to feel for the poor guy. First he lost Ricky Williams when the Pro Bowl running back decided he'd rather listen to Bob Marley than Paul Tagliabue; then, it was former Pro Bowl receiver David Boston who dropped out with a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. He's out for the year. Wide receiver Kendall Newson, the offensive star of training camp, soon joined him by rupturing his Achilles' tendon in the preseason opener, a game where Miami also lost reserve defensive back Alphonso Roundtree for the year with a broken ankle. The Boston and Newson losses had a huge impact on the club, forcing it to trade for wide receiver Marty Booker in a panic move. Question: Which would you rather have: The AFC leader with 15 sacks or a possession pass catcher accompanied by a third-round draft pick? I thought so.
    The more things change, the more they stay the same.