CHICAGO – The Chicago Bears' contingency planning for last Sunday's injury debacle started 497 days earlier.
If only every NFL team had thought that far ahead.
On a day when several NFL teams felt the hopeful foundations of this season shudder, the Bears picked up the pieces and spent Monday locking Plan B into place. Safety Mike Brown and defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek both went down with season-ending knee injuries against the San Diego Chargers, and by Monday each was replaced in a fashion that is about as seamless as it gets in the NFL.
Almost 16 months ago, the Bears drafted safety Danieal Manning with Brown's knee woes in mind. And a little more than six weeks ago, Chicago traded for defensive tackle Darwin Walker to provide depth to a defensive line that was one injury away from calamity. Now both moves look like masterstrokes of roster management. And that's something several NFL teams could use right now.
It's only one week into the season and the league has already seen two future Hall of Fame tackles toppled (Orlando Pace and Jonathan Ogden), three franchise quarterbacks thumped (Eli Manning, Steve McNair and Chad Pennington) and a smattering of other injuries (Brandon Jacobs, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Ferguson) that could alter the competitive balance of the league's landscape. And yet, perhaps no team was better prepared for the disaster than the Bears, who think they may not skip a beat after losing two defensive starters.
"I guess we'll find out, but I'd like to think you have good depth for a reason," Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "You hope something like this never happens, especially not in Week 1. But we've played without Mike before. We've played without Dusty before. You lose two great players, but I suppose the silver lining to it is that it happened in spots where we have some quality backups."
While Brown and Dvoracek are legitimate losses, neither is shattering. Not in the way losing linebacker Brian Urlacher would have been. In reality, the Bears didn't count on either player during the 2006 Super Bowl run, having lost Brown after six games last season, and Dvoracek after only one. In turn, that had plenty to do with the Bears making sure they had players like Manning and Walker in place before the start of the regular season.
While some might point to Brown as a particularly tough loss – he's a team captain and a former Pro Bowler – the Bears haven't been able to depend on him consistently since 2003. That's the last time he played a full season, missing 28 of 49 regular season games over the last three years. But he brought a certain element of toughness to the lineup when healthy, evidenced by a forced fumble and an interception before his injury against the Chargers on Sunday.
"We'll miss his leadership and everything he brings to the table," cornerback Nathan Vasher said. "He gives us toughness. It gives us more or less an identity on the back end to go out there and make plays. That's something he's been able to do for years and we're going to miss that."
But as much as Brown has added toughness, his unreliable health had the larger ripple effect. That issue and a lack of quality depth at safety is what prompted the Bears to tab Manning as a second-round pick in the 2006 NFL draft out of tiny Abilene Christian University.
At the time, head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo urged patience as Manning developed. Instead he ended up solidly starting 14 regular season games as well as the Bears' playoff run at free safety. It was an admirable first year, save for a blown assignment that resulted in a crushing 53-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne in the Super Bowl. Now Manning has the opportunity to cement himself at Brown's position, which is exactly what the Bears had in mind.
"This is what they drafted me for," Manning said Wednesday. "They wanted me to make plays."
"The extra year is going to help (Danieal) out," Vasher said. "He gives us an athletic guy back there that can go out there and make plays. It gives us some more flexibility out there."
The same could be said for Walker, who was acquired from the Buffalo Bills in July. A quick, disruptive force on the line over the length of his career, Walker had played both nose tackle and the three technique, making him an attractive commodity for a Bears team that had released Tank Johnson in the offseason and lost Ian Scott in free agency. Walker provides both talent and versatility, and those traits make him a quality addition – if not an upgrade – in the wake of Dvoracek's injury.
"We had a picture of what we were looking for at that position: an athletic guy that can move but can also play the run," Smith said, recalling the qualities that prompted the Bears to give up a late-round conditional draft pick in 2008. "Darwin does give us a little bit of versatility as far as being able to play the nose – it takes a special guy to do that – and also play the three (technique). He'll have to do both now."
Walker and Tommie Harris will likely both see an increased workload because of the lost depth. But the Bears still plan to employ a rotation at the defensive tackle spot, which means backups Antonio Garay and Anthony Adams should both see increased snaps.
"We've got a lot of guys that can play ball that are waiting for opportunities," Walker said. "…We'll have to find a way to get it done."
Considering the onslaught of injuries across the first week, Walker and Manning won't be the only ones getting an opportunity. Here are some other injuries that could have season-altering consequences for NFL teams:
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Manning's shoulder injury is quickly becoming one of the fishiest situations in recent memory. And indications are that either the Giants are getting conflicting medical opinions or someone is fudging on the diagnosis. The latter seems very plausible, considering the Giants have officially called the injury a bruised A-C joint, but coach Tom Coughlin referred to the injury as a "sprain." As a trainer for an AFC team told Yahoo! Sports Wednesday night, "Medically, you wouldn't confuse one with the other. A bruise involves muscle tissue. A sprain would deal with ligament issues."
If the injury is a serious shoulder separation – and if the Giants are being deceptive – then Manning will miss several weeks. If it is indeed a bruised A-C joint, he could plausibly play in pain. The alternative at his position is Jared Lorenzen, who has a great arm but only one career completion. Bottom line: If Manning misses serious time, his absence combined with several other key injuries on the team would likely spell losses in the next four: Green Bay, Washington, Philadelphia and the Jets.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants
Umenyiora's MCL sprain is expected to cost him a month, and the Giants are now considering moving linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka back to the defensive end spot to cover for the injury. Amazingly, it might be the best move for the team, anyway. Thus far, Kiwanuka hasn't wowed at the linebacker spot. And he showed some flashes of brilliance as an end last season. While moving him would soften a thin set of linebackers, having him make an impact at end would be more important. Umenyiora is hardly replaceable, but he doesn't hold the same key to wins and losses as Manning.
Brandon Jacobs, RB, New York Giants
Jacobs' sprained MCL is expected to keep him out for a month, although he is already suggesting that he can beat that timeframe. Unlike the situations with Umenyiora and Manning, Jacobs' backup, Derrick Ward, looked like he could carry the load when he took over against Dallas. He has some quickness and the frame (5-foot-11, 228 pounds) to handle the workload. The question is whether he can be consistently productive. Ward missed eight games last season with a broken foot and saw little daylight behind Jacobs and Tiki Barber. But the Giants liked him enough to give him the backup job over Reuben Droughns.
Orlando Pace, T, St. Louis Rams
Pace's season-ending labrum and rotator cuff injuries are the biggest blow for any team thus far. Only the shelving of Dallas nose tackle Jason Ferguson comes close. Combined with the lingering high ankle sprain of guard Richie Incognito, the Rams now have to reshuffle their line. In all likelihood, budding right tackle Alex Barron will move to the left side, and backup Adam Goldberg will man the right side. That might be enough to keep the pass protection functioning, assuming Barron can make a seamless transition. But taking Pace out of the run game is like removing Walter Jones of the Seattle Seahawks. It has ripple effects. Bottom line: It's awful news for Stephen Jackson and the entire offense.
Jon Jansen, T, Washington Redskins
Jansen suffered one of the more gruesome injuries in Week 1 – a broken leg and dislocated ankle that ended his season. It's the second time in four years that Jansen has suffered a season-ending injury, and it's bad news for Washington's running game. While the Redskins offense will trot out plenty of three- receiver sets, the backfield of Clinton Portis and LaDell Betts is still the meat and potatoes of the offense when both are healthy. Now it looks like veteran Todd Wade will end up starting in Jansen's spot on the right side of the line. That's a definite downgrade at the position. With Portis' knees being a season-long issue already, Washington's running game could take a significant hit.
Jonathan Ogden, T, Baltimore Ravens
Ogden says he will be back sometime this season from his hyper-extended toe, but don't be too sure. He's been dealing with the injury all offseason and sat out the preseason in hopes that it would heal. In fact, the only reason the Ravens played Ogden on Monday was because there weren't any guarantees Ogden's toe would feel any better with another week of rest, which should tell you something about the situation. He barely lasted a quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals, and in a best-case scenario, will only miss several games. Like Pace, it's a devastating loss for the Ravens. It's bound to hurt Willis McGahee and the running game, not to mention force the move of soft right tackle Adam Terry to the left side. And if the coverage from the line breaks down, which it likely will, the Ravens are probably looking at more max-protect situations, which means kiss the high-powered offensive expectations goodbye.
Steve McNair, QB, Baltimore Ravens
A Ravens source said Wednesday that McNair's groin injury was getting better and that he was determined to play Sunday, but that might be wishful thinking. The good news is that the tweak doesn't look like a long-term thing. That is, unless McNair pushes himself and aggravates it. The long-term picture is the coaching staff's primary concern, which means that in all likelihood, Kyle Boller will end up starting Sunday against the Jets, and then McNair will return on Sept. 23 against Arizona.
Chad Pennington, QB, New York Jets
Chad Pennington's sprained ankle is going to put him on the bench for Week 2 and get second-year man Kellen Clemens his first NFL start. While Pennington's ankle is far from season-threatening, this is exactly the kind of scenario that could open Pandora's box on the Jets' offense. No doubt, the franchise isn't doing Clemens any favors matching him up against Baltimore on the road for his first career start. But if Clemens can have even an above average showing and win, well, the guillotine will be positioned over Pennington's starting job. Clemens is expected to develop into this team's future starter, and as we've seen many times, future starters are often ushered in by one seemingly harmless injury.
Jason Ferguson, NT, Dallas Cowboys
Most fans simply don't understand how important the nose tackle spot is to the 3-4 defense. In the elite 3-4 schemes, the spot is pivotal. And solid nose tackles are very, very tough to find. The Cowboys are going to find that out with Ferguson's torn biceps knocking him out for the season and possibly pushing him into retirement. Just how desperate are the Cowboys? A league source confirmed Wednesday night that they are considering former Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson. But Johnson wouldn't be available until Week 9 at the earliest, due to his eight-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. The only other realistic alternative is inexperienced Jay Ratliff. If Dallas doesn't find an anchor at nose, you can count on coach Wade Phillips having a far tougher time turning this into an elite defense this season, even with a healthy Terence Newman.
Jason Webster, CB, Buffalo Bills
Webster's broken forearm puts him out for the season and takes away a starting cornerback from a secondary that doesn't have the quality depth to handle that kind of loss. Particularly with the other defensive starters (safety Ko Simpson and linebacker Coy Wire) that went down for the season along with Webster. Webster hurts the most, simply because you can't afford to lose experienced starting cornerbacks. All in all, the defensive injuries to the Bills will make them one of the youngest and most inexperienced defenses in the league. And they're bound to give up a lot of points. It's going to be another tough year in Buffalo.