Friday, November 3, 2006

Injuries to Test Green Bay Packers Depth, Resolve

There's nothing that says a one-armed wallpaper-hanger can't get the job done. However, it goes without saying that his job is just a little bit harder than his two-armed brethren.

So it goes this week for the Green Bay Packers, who head to Buffalo riding the biggest high they’ve had since the 2004 season, on a two-game winning streak and feeling like the engine is finally firing on all cylinders.

After a particularly terrible loss, it is common to hear people saying that 'every cloud has a silver lining'. After last week’s convincing win over the Arizona Cardinals, it could also be said that 'every sunny day still has a shadow'. The win is great, but we might still be paying the price when we look at this week’s injury report.

A high price, indeed, when you consider this team isn’t particularly experienced (an NFL-high 18 rookies on the youngest team in the NFL) that has already seen some of its veteran depth take a hit (the recent losses of Robert Ferguson, Koren Robinson, and Ahmad Carroll). Whether or not these vets are better or worse than the depth presently on the team isn’t the point: it’s that these backups are often getting their first NFL starts this season.

William Hazlitt once said, 'Prosperity is a great teacher, adversity a greater.' While Ted Thompson has come under criticism for some of his moves in building this team (particularly leaving $6 million in cap space unspent), injuries are a part of the game. Unfortunately, nearly any player or coach, when asked what would need to happen for the team to be successful, will always include in the top three responses, 'we need to stay healthy.'

This is the time the Mike McCarthy will show his mettle as a coach. He’s already shown a propensity for what I affectionately call 'spit and wire' adjustments. Last week, after losing Robinson and Ferguson, then also playing without #2 receiver Greg Jennings, he managed a gameplan that allowed the practice squad talents at WR to maximize their contributions. Sieve-like blocking by the young offensive line early in the season was combated by the use of extra blockers and placing Brett Favre in the shotgun 45 times in a game.

If McCarthy has a knack for covering holes, though, this week may be his true test of his abilities

Wide Receiver: Greg Jennings, listed as questionable, participated in Friday’s practice, a critical precursor to whether or not he will play in the game on Sunday. However, the Bills’ defense ranks 18th against the run, 14th against the pass...a far cry better than the defense of the Cardinals showed last week. Ruvell Martin, Chris Francies, and/or Shaun Bodiford may be asked to do more this week, especially if Jennings is unable to go.

Fullback: Not too long ago, longtime Packer favorite William Henderson was benched for practice squad player Brandon Miree. Now, Miree is out with an elbow injury, and Henderson will be asked to do the job without a backup.

Running Back: Vernand Morency, who has proven to be a fantastic change-up with elder statesman Ahman Green, ran for 100 yards last week before injuring his back. His absence moves Noah Herron up to very solid backup carries, as McCarthy has stated he is committed to limiting Green’s carries to no more than 18-20 a game. P.J. Pope has been signed off the Bears’ practice squad, another promising rookie, but if Green has injury problems again, this squad is suddenly looking very limited against a top-18 run defense.

Offensive Line: Chris White was waived this week to make room for Hill, leaving our developing line with few options in the event of injury. After the starting five, only Tony Moll and Junius Coston are expected to be active for the game.

Defensive Line: Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly, and Corey Williams make up three-quarters of a interior line that is ranked #9 against the run. And, all three made the injury list, although all reported practicing on Friday. Jenkins and Jolly, each of whom have had their moments this season, were listed as questionable, Williams as probable. Starter Ryan Pickett and backup Colin Cole are the only healthy interior linemen listed this week.

Cornerback: Charles Woodson, who has shown signs of being the big-play corner Ted Thompson hoped he had paid the big bucks for, finally succumbed to the injury we’ve been crossing our fingers wouldn’t happen. After being listed as doubtful on Wednesday, he’s been upgraded to questionable. His knee injury may or may not keep him out, but regardless, it is likely he will be limited. The secondary has been quite suspect as is this season, and with the departure of prima donna Ahmad Carroll, second-year man Patrick Dendy and rookies Tyrone Culver and Jarrett Bush may well be asked to do more than nickel and dime work.

This rash of injuries comes at a sensitive point in the Packers’ season. Rookie head coach McCarthy is just starting to get his team to gel, although he’s gotten much more competent playing an Arizona Cardinal team that, despite the 'official' standing as an NFL team, plays as well as a Division III college team.* This team is young, 31 first- and second-year players on the 53-man roster, and the fledgling confidence that is brewing is needed as we progress into games against more formidable talents, such as the Vikings and the Patriots.

The Bills are, at 2-5, certainly beatable. But, they are coming off a bye week, are much healthier, and, having just lost two of their previous three games to the New England Patriots and the Chicago Bears, are likely looking at the 3-4 Packers as a get-well game, too.

Injuries are part of the game, but how well a team handles the adversity is the true measure of its character. Like the 2005 season, injuries can frustrate you and rip a team apart. How many Packers last year landed on the injury list when it was obvious the team was going nowhere?

These are the times in which unknown players become cult heroes, coaches get labeled as 'geniuses', and general managers earn their keep.

Ruvell Martin may establish himself as a solid #3 receiving threat, William Henderson could give fans one more chance to see him set up Ahman’s explosions through the line, and Patrick Dendy may give Thompson a reason to hold off on the extension for Al Harris.

But, most of all, Mike McCarthy may earn a reputation as being a crafty chessmaster, able to move his pawns and knights about the board in a winning series of moves that continues the forward momentum he’s enjoying.

Let’s hope that these injuries only test the Packers’ depth, and not their faith in the direction the team is taking.

*Author’s note: if any Division III coaches or players are offended by comparing your program to the Arizona Cardinals, please accept my apologies.

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