Mounting injuries already testing NFL teams' depth

Associated Press
A fan holds a sign about injured Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning who will miss his second game against the Cleveland Browns in an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
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A fan holds a sign about injured Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning who will miss his second …

To win in the NFL, it takes more than great players. Teams must have quality backups, too, or at least serviceable ones.

Just ask the Colts, Chiefs, Rams, Broncos, Giants, Cowboys, Raiders and Eagles.

Only two weeks into the season, those teams already have been forced to tap into their depth in serious ways. They've had to replace high-profile players, multiple starters and, in some cases, several players at the same position.

The results: the Colts, Chiefs and Rams are 0-2, while the Broncos, Giants, Cowboys, Raiders and Eagles are 1-1.

Each situation is different, but the challenge is the same — finding a way to win when your top players are missing.

"You have to hope you have enough talent, but it's tough," said NFL Network analyst Jim Mora, a former coach in Atlanta and Seattle. "There's a reason one guy makes $10 million and another guy makes the minimum. There's a difference in ability, so sometimes it's unrealistic to say, 'Next man up.' But that's what you do. And then you ask other guys to add more to the bucket."

Plugging holes is tougher still this season because of the lockout.

Think of all the lost offseason work that would have helped get rookies ready, or continue the development of second- and third-year players. The abbreviated free agency also meant front offices couldn't take their time scouring the market for veterans capable of starting in a pinch. Instead, they had to scramble to fill out their rosters, often settling for guys they were willing to let walk away but figured they might as well keep since they already were familiar.

But even teams that seemed to have planned well aren't immune. Philadelphia signed Vince Young to back up Michael Vick, only to see both of them go down, forcing a third-stringer into action. As much as the Eagles like Mike Kafka's potential, their roster is built to win now. So maybe they'd be better off with Kevin Kolb still around, instead of having traded him to Arizona.

No amount of planning would have prepared the Colts and Chiefs for what they're facing.

Peyton Manning had never missed a start in his career. The front office was so set on finding the right talent around him to load up for another Super Bowl run they hardly considered investing in or cultivating a replacement. Most observers are surprised at how drastic the fallout has been, but part of it could be the woe-is-me attitude that comes with losing a player who wasn't just the face of the organization, he was its backbone.

In Kansas City, running back Jamaal Charles, safety Eric Berry and tight end Tony Moeaki tore ligaments in their left knees in successive weeks. Two linebackers and a tackle also are out for the season.

Between the talent drain and the emotional letdown of seeing their top offensive and defensive players go on injured reserve, the Chiefs look nothing like the reigning AFC West champs. Sure, it's only been two weeks, but they have the double whammy of allowing the most points (by far) and scoring the fewest.

"We don't feel sorry for ourselves at all," linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "You can't, because when you start feeling sorry for yourselves it's going to be a long year."

Coaches refuse to use injuries as an excuse, internally and externally, at least until the accumulation puts their job in jeopardy. Instead, they push the notion that everybody on the roster is there for a reason, and injuries provide opportunities.

Truth is, injuries test the resolve of the healthy players as much as they do the talent of the backups.

"You have to regroup," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Monday night on ESPN, before what's left of his squad beat the similarly hurting Rams. "You have to ask the others, the other players, to play at a higher level in order to compensate for this. And you have to ask those coming along, whether they be young ones or whether they be the next in line as a veteran player, that they're going to have to step in there and do a great job."

It gets trickier when teams lose two starters at one position, or a starter and a backup. That's happening a lot across the league, especially with receivers.

The Raiders had their top two and a third inactive on Sunday, while the Broncos and Cowboys finished games with their top two threats on the sideline. For Dallas, that's how former reality TV star Jesse Holley became the star of an overtime victory. For Denver, it meant putting Tim Tebow on the field as a third wideout.

"I have to know all the routes; I play quarterback," Tebow said.

Denver also was missing star cornerback Champ Bailey, star pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, leading rusher Knowshon Moreno and more — enough quality players that the Broncos' inactive list Sunday represented about 20 percent of their salary cap.

Dallas also was missing starting cornerback Terence Newman and his would-be replacement Orlando Scandrick and a starting offensive lineman. By game's end, the Cowboys were without another lineman, their leading rusher had a separated shoulder and Tony Romo was playing through a broken rib and punctured lung.

Both teams won anyway.

As a career backup quaterback, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett understands the importance of always being ready. He constantly preaches that players must be ready, daring backups to know the game plan better than the starters.

"It's not a very far walk or jog from the sidelines to the middle of the field," he said. "But it's a completely different world."

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