Week 10 in the NFL was an injury bloodbath, especially when it came to star players. Among those who were knocked out of games: Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Benson(notes) (hip), who is a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year; Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes) (knee), the heart and soul of one of the league's best defenses; and Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner(notes) (ankle), who has emerged over the last two seasons as one of the league's best.
The only good news for those teams? All three of these stars are expected back on the field at some point this season. But for other teams, the injury news in Week 10 was devastating.
The season is over for Dallas Cowboys starting right tackle Marc Colombo(notes), who broke his right leg, as well as for Carolina Panthers starting left tackle Jordan Gross(notes), who broke his right ankle. And Philadelphia Eagles star running back Brian Westbrook(notes) suffered a concussion, his second of the year. He is most likely done for the season – and there are rumors that his career is in jeopardy.
"I know it's a cliché, but injuries are part of the game," says Charley Casserly, longtime NFL general manager for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, and now a commentator for CBS Sports. "I know that, publicly, teams always say that injuries are no excuse," he says. "But the reality is that when key players get injured, your team is not as good."
It's for this reason that injuries are an obsession of NFL general managers. "You have to be ready to fill in anywhere," says Casserly. He says that during his time as a GM, he would review an emergency list every Friday before a game, preparing a replacement for every player on his team. "We'd have a backup plan. Maybe the replacement came from the practice squad. Maybe the replacement was a free agent."
On occasion, the plan went into effect with lightning speed. When a player suffered a devastating injury during a game, "sometimes we'd agree to a contract with a new player before the game was over," says Casserly.
Injuries are also closely watched by gamblers and fantasy players. ESPN's Sunday morning SportsCenter broadcast is one of the cable network's most closely watched, mainly because of last-minute injury updates.
Behind the numbers
With the NFL season in its second half, and the playoff picture starting to emerge, significant injuries to key players become more impactful. We defined a significant injury as one that puts a player on the season-ending Injured Reserve list. We defined "key player" as one who starts most games. To keep our list of 10 teams relevant, we only included NFL teams that have a reasonable shot to make the playoffs. We asked Casserly to chime in on some of the injuries.
The NFL has two undefeated teams left, the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts; both have injury concerns. The Colts are fresh off a wild victory over the New England Patriots, but reality for the team may soon set in: The Colts have lost three starters on their defensive side. Linebacker Tyjuan Hagler(notes) and cornerback Marlin Jackson(notes), a nickel defense specialist, were both put on the season-ending IR. But the most troublesome loss of for the Colts was safety, Bob Sanders(notes). He's the best playmaker on the Colts defense. "Sanders provided run-support and pass defense," says Casserly. "They might not feel the loss now, but it could show up in the playoffs."
The New Orleans Saints are also 9-0, a franchise-best record. But they have serious injury concerns, the biggest being offensive lineman Jammal Brown(notes). His absence hasn't hurt the high-flying Saints offense … yet.
"Drew Brees(notes), with his quick release, compensates for his offensive line," says Casserly. But the two-time Pro Bowler Brown will be missed when the games get tighter and the defenses get nastier. Also, Kendrick Clancy(notes) was a big loss on the defensive line. The undefeated Saints got gouged by the Carolina Panthers on the ground in Week 9, perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
Giants in name only
The New York Giants' presence on our list should come as no surprise to football fans. The Giants started the season with five straight wins; they've since dropped four straight. A big reason has been the drop-off on defense.
Safety Kenny Phillips(notes) was lost in Week 2: He was leading the team in interceptions, tackles and passes defended when he was injured. The Giants' defense hasn't been the same since he left, giving up easy victories to the Saints and the Philadelphia Eagles.
But perhaps the biggest loser on the injury front is also in New York. The New York Jets started the season full of wins and bravado, which their defense backed up. Since stout nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes) was hurt, the team has fallen back to earth. In Week 10, the Jenkins-less defense gave up 123 rushing yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew(notes).
"Jenkins had a huge impact in stopping the run and pushing the pocket on pass defense," says Casserly. The bottom line: "The Jets are not as good without him."
The top five: