Were injuries a major reason why the Green Bay Packers went 6-10 one year after going 13-3 and reaching the NFC championship game?
"No, because it's part of the game," coach Mike McCarthy said during his season-ending news conference on Wednesday at Lambeau Field.
But in the same breath, McCarthy provided a different, more realistic answer.
"I think injuries play a big part in potential success in our league," McCarthy continued. "It definitely makes you go different directions than you probably would have initially before the injuries."
Injuries aren't an excuse. It's what is ingrained in an athlete once he becomes old enough for winning and losing to matter. It's part of what aspiring coaches learn in the classroom. It's a cliché that's drilled in the heads of fans, reporters and sports-radio personalities.
But let's be realistic. Starters are starters for a reason. They're starters and get the most playing time because they're better than the guys behind them.
The biggest case in point was the season-ending chest injury to defensive end Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins' ascension into the starting lineup played a big role in the Packers winning the final four games of the 2006 season, and while he wasn't a stud in 2007, he certainly helped the team reach the NFC title game.
Jenkins entered this season out to prove that his strong play in 2006 — not to mention the big contract that followed — was no fluke. In the opener against Minnesota, he recorded five tackles and two quarterback hurries. At Detroit, he had one sack and two more pressures. Against Dallas, he had 1.5 sacks, three pressures and a forced fumble. And against Tampa Bay in Week 4, Jenkins tallied three more hurries. But Jenkins injured his pectoral early in the fourth quarter of that game, and the Packers' defense felt the pain.
Amazingly, in four games, Jenkins piled up 10 quarterback hurries. Even though he missed the final 12 games, he still ranked second on the team in that category. Plus, he was clearly the Packers' best defender against the run.
"Oh, I think Cullen Jenkins is clearly a major player on both sides of the spectrum," McCarthy said. "I think he is a force in the run defense. He is a defensive lineman that creates penetration, whether it is in the run game or the passing game. He is a problem on first and second down, particularly at defensive end for a tight end. He can go inside and rush on third down. You're able to create different matchup problems with him. I felt Cullen would definitely factor in both the run and the pass. Now, once again, we already talked about it, you need to overcome injuries regardless of who it is. But I mean, Cullen Jenkins is one of the best football players on our team."
For as good as Aaron Kampman is, Jenkins' was the Packers' best defensive lineman for the first month of the season. Add in the team's best linebacker, Nick Barnett, missing the final seven games with a torn ACL and its best run-defending safety, the hard-hitting Atari Bigby, missing nine games and parts of a couple others with a variety of injuries, and the defense had a chronic absence of playmakers.
For good measure, starting cornerback Al Harris missed four games with a lacerated spleen, defensive tackle Justin Harrell played in only seven games because of back and hip problems and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila provided practically no impact in his seven games because of offseason knee surgery. With all of that, it's no mystery why the Packers' defense plunged down the NFL rankings and the team's playoff hopes were wheeled off on a gurney.
With Jenkins, Barnett, Bigby and right tackle Mark Tauscher out for the finale, the Packers missed a combined 46 games from their preferred starting lineup. Last year? The Packers lost a combined 10 games.
"But to me, that's all part of the landscape of the National Football League," McCarthy said. "It's all part of the chess match or the journey through an NFL season. It's no excuse. You could make a case we probably didn't overcome our injuries as well as we should have."
Sure, injuries are no excuse. McCarthy has to say that and his players have to believe it. And yes, the best teams can overcome some injuries. But injuries turn backups into starters and practice-squad guys into key backups. That has to have an impact.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No excuses? Injuries were a pain
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