First, it was Jeremy Newberry. Then, it was Ben Lynch. Now, ankle injuries to those two players in consecutive weeks might leave the 49ers without a true center on their roster for Sunday's divisional battle against the Atlanta Falcons - and may force them to shuffle their offensive line.
Lynch, starting at center last Sunday night against Carolina in place of Newberry - who was out with an injured ankle he suffered the week before against the New York Jets - sprained his right ankle on San Francisco's second offensive series during a 24-14 victory over the Panthers. Lynch played through the pain the remainder of the game, but it was not a sight for sore eyes. He was limping noticeably, and after the game his ankle had swelled considerably and was ugly shades of purple. He underwent a Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam on Monday and is listed as doubtful against the Falcons.
"Gosh, watching the film and seeing Ben limping on every single play, you felt the pain for the guy," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "I mean, he was basically playing on one leg out there. I don't know if that's ever been done at the NFL level, but he was definitely showing how to play one leg."
On Monday, neither the Niners or Garcia knew who would be snapping the ball to the quarterback against the Falcons. One possibility is Newberry will return much sooner than expected. When he suffered a high left ankle sprain against the Jets, it was believed Newberry probably wouldn't be ready to return until after the team comes back from its bye week with an Oct. 28 game at Chicago. But Newberry has made a quick recovery and was upgraded to questionable on Monday. But his status remains in doubt.
"I couldn't have played (against Carolina). I couldn't play if there was a game today if I had to," Newberry said Monday. "But I still have another six days before we have to decide that. My mind says I'm going to play Sunday. I'm going to approach this week like I'm playing and see how it goes from there. If I can say I'm ready to go out and play, I'm sure (coaches) are not going to tell me I can't."
If Newberry's condition doesn't improve enough to play, the Niners might have to do some considerable juggling on an offensive line that was a rock of stability last season. Lynch almost certainly won't play against the Falcons. "Ben's similar to where I was last week," Newberry said. "He showed a lot of courage on the field just to finish that game. With me, it's kind of see how I feel. But I'm confident I'll be healthy enough by (Sunday)." If Newberry isn't, "We've got some choices to make," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said.
The Niners are considering moving starting right guard Dave Fiore to center, or moving rookie reserve Milford Stephenson into the starting lineup at the position. If Fiore moves to center, the team is considering replacing him with veteran Matt Willig - the backup at both tackle positions - or moving versatile starting left tackle Derrick Deese to guard and having Willig replace him at tackle. Deese started at guard for San Francisco's last Super Bowl championship team. "We can play musical chairs if we have to," Mariucci said. "It's all going to depend on those centers' ankles."