The good news for Indianapolis in the wake of Jeff Saturday's knee surgery is that they've been here before, with Saturday missing four games to open 2008. They were able to win 12 games that season and advance to the playoffs, so they have weathered a similar storm in past seasons.
The Colts opened that season 2-2, though, on their way to a 3-4 start, and the team is certainly hoping that they can have Saturday back in time when the regular season kicks off.
Peyton Manning had a bursa sac removed prior to the 2008 season — the report on Saturday's surgery is that he had a "loose body" removed — and was back in time to keep his streak of regular season starts alive, so there is also a history of players being able to overcome late offseason surgery and play at a high level, with Manning winning the NFL's MVP award following the 2008 season.
But Saturday needs to use his knees a lot more than Manning does and, at 35, Saturday is not likely to recover as quickly as he once may have. Manning was 32 when he came back from his procedure and those three years make a difference. Add to that the fact that Manning went under the knife on July 15th and Saturday on August 10th, and that makes it even less likely that he will be able to line up and make the first snap on offense in 2010.
The most likely replacement for Saturday is Jamey Richard, the man that replaced him for the first four games of 2008. Richard is a fine player, but he is not Saturday's caliber. Saturday has declined physically since his previous injury and the recent procedure won't do him any favors, but Indianapolis has yet to find a substitute for him at the line of scrimmage and his rapport with Manning in terms of blocking assignments and line calls cannot be replaced.
As a veteran and a professional, Saturday will do his best to pass on what he has learned over the years, but extra sessions, practices, and time in the film room do not equate to what he has meant to Manning and this offense the past 12 seasons.
With the younger, more athletic Richard under center, the Colts will be able to pull and trap more, as well as be able to run more screens, since Richard will be able to get down the field faster. Richard does have some game experience and has learned a great deal since he was called upon to fill Saturday's shoes as a rookie.
The other option would be rookie fourth-round pick Jacques McClendon, who has moved from guard to center in training camp. But, McClendon has never played the position in his life, is a rookie, and, at 324 pounds, is bigger than Indianapolis usually likes their centers. This is not to say that he won't emerge as the starter, but expectations should be kept realistic.
Without Saturday in 2008, Indianapolis rushed for 67.8 yards per game and gave up seven sacks. Their average rushing output for those four games was worse than their league-worst average of 80.8 yards per game in 2009 and seven sacks is a lot for them to give up in four games. It's true that Indianapolis did not do much better in the running game with Saturday at center all season and it's also true that Manning was still fighting back from his knee injury and getting his timing back at the outset of the 2008 season, so it could be that it will be business as usual for the Colts on offense. Or, at least close to business as usual.
All indications point to Saturday playing in the regular season and perhaps starting the regular season, so Indianapolis just needs the next man up to keep things together until he returns. When he returns, he should not be mentally rusty since he's very comfortable at the position, but he may be physically rusty given the nature of the injury and his age. There is also no doubt that they will put him back in the lineup as soon as he is ready, given that they sacrificed a roster spot by not putting him on the PUP list to start 2008, as many speculated they might.
The larger issue in play is that Saturday cannot play forever. Getting Richard and McClendon valuable practice time and reps could prove to be a blessing in the long run. In the short run, though, it could be a bumpy ride.
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