There was a time in the NFL that, if you didn’t practice, you didn’t play. Even with the tricks and shenanigans teams use to disguise the severity of injuries – Andrew Luck’s alleged broken ribs come to mind – with very few exceptions, when a player doesn’t practice during the week, he doesn’t play on Sunday.
For the St. Louis Rams tomorrow, it will be interesting to see how that time-honored mantra is treated.
In the final injury reports released Friday, four Rams starters were listed as not practicing all week. One of them – defensive end Chris Long – was ruled out from Sunday’s game. Thee more – DE Robert Quinn (knee), OT Rob Havenstein (ankle) and S T.J. McDonald (foot) – are listed as questionable, which by league definition means they have a 50-50 chance of playing or not playing.
The difference between which of them make it and which don’t could be as critical as any factor in determining who wins and who loses Sunday.
Quinn leads the Rams with five sacks. He is a relentless pass rusher who would be lining up opposite Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil trying to pressure Teddy Bridgewater from his blind side. Taking away Quinn is the equivalent of the Vikings playing without Everson Griffen. While there are replacement men in play – veteran William Hayes and Eugene Sims – not having Quinn potentially available is huge, especially given that Hayes only practiced Friday and that was on a limited basis with a thigh injury.
Perhaps just as important is the injury to Havenstein. The rookie starting right tackle has been rumored to be hobbled with his ankle injury and the Rams haven’t played either of his potential replacements – undrafted rookie backup Darrell Williams or fourth-round rookie Andrew Donnal. If Havenstein is a no-go, not only will it open up opportunities for defensive end Brian Robison to have a big day, it opens up blitz pressure possibilities on the right side of the Rams O-line, where fellow rookie Jamon Brown is trying to hold down the fort at right guard. Williams has reportedly struggled to man the tackle position, so not having Havenstein could potentially be a critical loss to the Rams offense looking to establish the run early and let Todd Gurley do a lot of the heavy lifting for the offense.
Not to be outdone, McDonald could be another critical decision that needs to be made by St. Louis before game time. Of all the positions in which they have quality depth, safety isn’t one of them. If McDonald can’t go, the onus will fall on second-year players Maurice Alexander and Christian Bryant to be the deep patrol safety downfield.
The Vikings seemed to be pretty clear cut about their interpretation of the “don’t practice, don’t play” theme. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Eric Kendricks were the only Vikings who didn’t practice all week. Both of them were ruled out of Sunday’s game when the final injury report came out.
The Rams, on the other hand, are keeping the playing status of three of their key starters a mystery. If history tells us anything, it’s rare when a player doesn’t practice at all and starts the game on Sunday. It happens – Brett Favre famously went from “out” to starting when the Vikings played their first game at TCF Bank Stadium following the roof collapse of the Metrodome – so there is a precedent that practicing is not always a requirement for starting. But, for the most part, teams don’t risk the long-term health of a player who is slowed up by an injury severe enough to keep him from participating in practice.
If the Rams are honestly reporting the extent of the injuries to their three starters, there is a very real possibility the team could be without its best pass rusher, its starting right tackle and starting strong safety, with little in the way in equality being provided by the inexperienced and untested backups.
Of all the factors that could come into play Sunday to tip the balance in favor of one team or another, the potential for the drop-off of injured players and the next man up who will potentially replace each of them could be the biggest factor of all.
We likely won’t find out until 10:30 a.m. tomorrow when the teams list their inactive players whether any or all of the three injured Rams will join Long on the inactive list. That could be the time that we find out whether the chances of the Vikings continuing their home winning streak will have a profoundly better chance of continuing.