Dougherty: Packers in a war of attrition
One given in the NFL is that you have to overcome injuries.
Another is that there are some injuries you can’t overcome.
They’re equally true. We see it almost every year.
A team has a long list of players on injured reserve, including several starters, yet does great things. Count the 2010 Green Bay Packers in that group.
Another loses a key player or two, not necessarily even a quarterback, and its title chances are kaput. That’s the Oakland Raiders (quarterback Derek Carr) and maybe Seattle Seahawks (safety Earl Thomas) this season.
The chase for the Super Bowl is in large part a matter of somehow, someway, getting to and through the playoffs with your key players upright and close to full strength.
“Football is a game of attrition,” is how Packers linebacker Clay Matthews summed it up last week while discussing his injury issues this season.
As the Packers head for what could be a de facto playoff game at Detroit on Sunday night, a look back to 2010 offers a couple of valuable insights into what goes in to winning a title.
Injuries were a never-ending theme for the Packers that season. They finished with 16 players on IR, including several starters (Jermichael Finley, Mark Tauscher, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett and rookie safety Morgan Burnett).
But you don’t always know at the time which injuries a team can overcome. Those Packers, for instance, had a blossoming Aaron Rodgers and enough talent at receiver to compensate for losing Finley even though their offense had been built around him in training camp.
First-round pick Bryan Bulaga proved to be a ready-made replacement for Tauscher at right tackle.
Rookie James Starks materialized in January after a season-long hamstring injury and proved to be just as good as Grant.
With All-Pro Nick Collins at safety, it almost didn’t matter who played opposite him.
And in lesson No. 2, Barnett’s injury ended up helping Dom Capers' defense. His replacement, Desmond Bishop, turned out to be a better player.
The one wonder was how the Packers won the Super Bowl after cornerback Charles Woodson’s broken collarbone late in the first half. Without him for the final 31 ½ minutes, the Packers were outscored by the Steelers 22-10. Capers’ defense was on the ropes. It took Matthews’ forced fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter to win the game.
That game also showed the occasionally serendipitous side of injuries. Donald Driver’s day ended with an ankle injury early in the second quarter. His absence forced the Packers to play ascending young Jordy Nelson more, and his performance (nine catches for 140 yards) suggests that by that time he was a better player than his 36-year-old teammate.
That brings us to this year. Coach Mike McCarthy’s 2016 team has weathered one key season-ending injury, to Eddie Lacy. Ty Montgomery has made the difference there. The question is whether the Packers can weather another, Sam Shields’ concussion in Week 1. He was their best cornerback, and they've missed him even more than I would have guessed at the time.
Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins looked primed for big improvement in the offseason, but for whatever reasons it hasn’t come. So losing Shields has been a killer, maybe more than this team can overcome.
And to add some perspective, when Randall (groin) and Rollins (groin) also were out for several weeks, the Packers’ defense wasn’t even competitive. As spotty as the two young cornerbacks have been, their return at least gives their team a chance.
You also have to wonder if another injury, Randall Cobb’s, has opened the door to more serendipity.
The Packers need to keep an open mind to the possibility that rookie Geronimo Allison should play as much as or even ahead of Cobb when the latter returns from an ankle injury. That could be this weekend.
We don’t have a lot to go on – four catches for 66 yards in Cobb’s stead last Saturday – but Allison is an imposing (6-foot-3) receiver. His size brought an eye-catching dimension to the Packers’ offense that the 5-10 Cobb can’t match. And Rodgers is more than willing to throw to the rookie, which means he must run good routes.
With Allison, Nelson (6-3, 217), Davante Adams (6-1, 215, 39 ½-inch vertical jump) and tight end Jared Cook (6-5, 254) on the field at the same time, Rodgers has a field full of big, physical targets. Defensive backs could have a tough time dealing with all that size. The Minnesota Vikings did last week.
So maybe an injury opportunity will end up helping the Packers’ bid for the Super Bowl this year.
Here’s a quick look at how injuries could affect some of the other contenders’ title chances:
Detroit: The Packers’ opponent Sunday has a huge injury, to cornerback Darius Slay (hamstring), that could kill its playoff chances. If Slay can’t play or is compromised Sunday, the Lions will have a tough time matching up. Quarterback Matthew Stafford’s dislocated middle finger on his throwing hand doesn’t help, either.
Dallas: The NFC’s most talented offense also has its healthiest team. With nothing to play for Sunday and a first-round bye, the Cowboys could be as close to full strength as a team could hope.
Atlanta: Receiver Julio Jones (toe) is still mending. He’s indispensable, so a first-round bye would be a huge help. Cornerback Desmond Trufant (pectoral) was a meaningful loss last month.
Seattle: Thomas’ season-ending broken leg could be a deal-breaker. Much of what makes the Seahawks a top defense revolves around his abilities in center field.
New York Giants: Their one injury of note is DE Jason Pierre-Paul’s recent hernia-type. He might be back next week for the playoffs. He makes a difference.
New England: Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s season-ending back injury is big. The Patriots have Tom Brady, a good No. 2 tight end in Martellus Bennett and are 7-0 without Gronkowski this year. But whether they can beat, say, Dallas without him, I’m not so sure.
Pittsburgh: One of the Steelers’ best defensive players, end Cameron Heyward (pectoral), is out for the season. That hurts. At least all their must-have offensive players (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) are alive and well.
Kansas City: The Chiefs have weathered the loss of RB Jamaal Charles. Doubtful they can do the same in the playoffs without their best pass rusher, DE Justin Houston. He won’t play for the second straight week because of swelling in his post-surgical knee.
Miami: Probably not much of a Super Bowl threat even with QB Ryan Tannehill (knee). Not one at all with him sidelined indefinitely.
Oakland: No Carr, no chance.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.