Walking Wounded: Next Men Up in Short Supply

Under Mike McCarthy, the expectation is the substitutes will perform and the team will keep winning. Starters, however, are starters for a reason. Might the injury to Bryan Bulaga be the tipping point, or can the team survive until some injured stars return next month?

Prince partied like it's 1999.

Can the Green Bay Packers party like it's 2010?

Two years ago, the Packers won the Super Bowl despite 11 opening-day starters missing at least one game. In all, those players missed a combined 86 games. Six starters wound up on injured reserve, and they all missed at least 10 games.

The phrase "next man up" became so ingrained that it was practically painted in the Lambeau Field end zones.

It's been "next man up" again this season. Ten starters have missed at least one game, a list that doesn't include Bryan Bulaga, who's been placed on injured reserve with a serious hip injury, and Clay Matthews, who isn't expected to play at Detroit because of an injured hamstring.

Coach Mike McCarthy's choices are throwing a pity party or to move on like nothing's happened. On the Sunday of the victory over Jacksonville and the Monday following that game, McCarthy was asked five times about injuries. His message never changed.

"I appreciate the number of different ways you're asking it, but I don't understand why we keep getting the same question here," McCarthy said a day after beating the Jaguars. "The injuries are part of the game. I don't think I ever even said the word ‘inactive list' during the course of the week. It's part of the game, part of your normal process. There's things that go on in our world in the game of football that are just unsaid. It's just the way you go about your business. It's what you accept and it's part of the grind of an NFL season."

Clearly, that has to be the message inside the locker room. Anything else would foster a woe-is-me attitude that isn't conducive to anything but losing football games.

McCarthy's message, of course, is meant for his team. The byproduct is that the fans seem to shrug off the injuries. Next man up, right?

Putting 2010 into this perspective shows the challenge awaiting this year's team. During the 2010 playoffs, Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin wrote that only three teams since 2000 had lost more games from starters than the 2010 Packers. None of those three teams — the 2004 Titans, 2005 49ers and 2009 Bills — won even six games.

Through nine games, the Packers have lost 33 games from starters. (See sidebar.) That number will grow to no less than 54 games when the starters on injured reserve (Desmond Bishop, Nick Perry and Bulaga) are considered. Figuring that Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson and Cedric Benson probably will miss no less than three more games apiece and Matthews probably sits out against Detroit, the missed-games count grows to a projected 64.

McCarthy's message has worked. His beat-up team has won four in a row and controls its destiny in the NFC North. If the Packers can survive the next month, they figure to get a late-season boost from Cedric Benson, Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson.

It's worth noting that the Packers were strong at most of the positions where injuries were sustained. The deepest positions were receiver and the secondary, so they've gotten by without Jordy Nelson, Jennings, Woodson and Sam Shields. Depth on the defensive line helped cover up for the two-game absence of B.J. Raji. Because of Aaron Rodgers' greatness, the offense was fine without Benson.

However, can the Packers win it all as the depth has been eroded away? Losing Bishop was a big blow, though D.J. Smith proved a capable replacement. Now, the Packers are down to Brad Jones. Losing Perry was a minor blow given the play of backup Erik Walden, but now the Packers are counting on undrafted rookie Dezman Moses to replace Matthews for a week or two.

The biggest injury of all is Bulaga, who replaced Mark Tauscher in 2010. T.J. Lang will be fine at right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith will be fine at left guard. However, Lang isn't as good as Bulaga at right tackle and Dietrich-Smith isn't as good as Lang at left guard. So, the Packers will be worse at two positions on the offensive line for the rest of the season. The depth up front has been spent. Dietrich-Smith used the word "apocalypse" when asked what happens if Lang or left tackle Marshall Newhouse joins the injury list.

Might the Packers overcome all of these injuries and win another championship? Perhaps. Or, this season could wind up like the 2002 season, when the bruised-and-battered Packers ran out of gas and got smoked in the regular-season finale at the Jets to miss out on a first-round bye, then got pounded at home in the playoffs by Atlanta.

"2010 was a special year but it stands by itself," Rodgers said Tuesday during his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee, "just like 2011 stands by itself and this season will stand by itself. Like Mike keeps saying, every team is unique. Every season has different challenges and adversity. That's something you have to deal with and overcome if you want to be successful."

Added Bishop on Monday: "I hope it ends like 2010."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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