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Crunch time: NFL injuries piling up

Posted: Tuesday, September 28, 2004

So many NFL teams are losing key players this season that making the playoffs might be a matter of survival.

If there haven't been more injuries so far this season, there are certainly more important players getting hurt.

Two weeks ago, Carolina lost Steve Smith and Stephen Davis, two of its top offensive threats. Last week the injury epidemic struck Cleveland's Kellen Winslow Jr., Gerard Warren and Courtney Brown.

It was so bad that coach Butch Davis brought trainer Mike Colello to a news conference.

Also lost were Deuce McAllister, the Saints' star running back, and Pittsburgh quarterback Tommy Maddox.

Two more quarterbacks were seriously injured Sunday: Chicago's Rex Grossman is gone for the season with a knee injury and Oakland's Rich Gannon has a broken vertebra in his neck that will keep him out for at least six weeks.

Even the indestructible Brett Favre disclosed after Sunday's loss in Indianapolis that he has an injury to his left shoulder, although he insisted it won't end his NFL record streak of 192 straight regular-season starts at quarterback.

''If it was my right one, I wouldn't be playing,'' Favre said. ''But I feel like Mel Gibson in 'Lethal Weapon.' It's just kind of loose and kind of wobbles around and pops out from time to time. As long as it pops back, I'm OK.''

Put Tennessee's Steve McNair, the NFL's co-MVP, in the same category. He left Sunday's game with Jacksonville with a bruised chest and will remain hospitalized until Tuesday, although he could play next week.

Butch Davis said last week he had seen a list of players lost for the season with almost 200 names on it.

The NFL says there is no such list, although the league issues public injury reports from Wednesday through Friday and it tightened the reporting guidelines for teams during the preseason.

''The weekly reports have been a cornerstone of the public's confidence in the NFL for decades,'' commissioner Paul Tagliabue wrote in a memo to all 32 coaches. ''Clubs are expected to issue information that is credible, accurate and specific within the guidelines of our policies.''

The epidemic started in the exhibition season.

Two top offensive linemen, Washington's Jon Jansen and St. Louis' Kyle Turley, were lost for the season, as was Miami wide receiver David Boston. Anquan Boldin of Arizona, last year's offensive rookie of the year, is out indefinitely with a knee injured in camp, and another young receiving star, Detroit's Charles Rogers, was lost for the season a week ago for the second straight year with a broken collarbone.

Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher of the Bears, who already have lost safety Mike Brown for the season, missed all the exhibition games with a hamstring injury, then was idle for the first time in his five-year career Sunday after aggravating it.

In addition to Grossman and Gannon, this week's injury list includes Tampa Bay running back Charlie Garner, Philadelphia fullback Jon Ritchie and Cincinnati middle linebacker Nate Webster, all out for the season with knee injuries. Garner joins Bucs starting wide receiver Joey Galloway on the sidelines.

Ritchie's injury is another blow to the running back corps of the Eagles, the only team to win all three games this season by double-digit margins. Correll Buckhalter, who was to split duties at running back with Brian Westbrook, was lost for the season in training camp.

Some teams have overcome injuries the way New England did last season. The Patriots won the Super Bowl despite having a dozen key players sidelined at various times. Oakland has the luxury of having Kerry Collins, who guided the Giants to the 2001 Super Bowl, to replace Gannon.

Other teams get by with less-proven backups.

Carolina, for example, lost Smith, its best receiver, in its opener and also went without Davis, its starting running back, at Kansas City. The NFC champions won that game with DeShaun Foster running for 174 yards in Davis' place and rookie Keary Colbert catching three balls for 46 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown, as Smith's replacement.

''I felt good about the people that were stepping in,'' coach John Fox said. ''There are no redshirts here, everybody has got a scholarship. There's 53 of us, and we chose you because we believe in you and we believe you have the opportunity to either start for us, play for us and help us win.'''

Baltimore, without Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, turned Sunday to its old standby, Jamal Lewis, who ran for 186 yards in a 23-9 win in Cincinnati.

Heap could be out for as long as three more weeks with a sprained ankle.

And Pittsburgh, which lost Maddox for at least six weeks with an elbow injury, got a decent debut from Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick in last April's draft, in its 13-3 win over the Dolphins.

Roethlisberger was intercepted on his first pass, but finished 12-of-22 for 163 yards and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.

''Ben played well,'' coach Bill Cowher said. ''After the first play when he threw the interception, he bounced back. After that he made good decisions.''

That's this year's solution: Go with whoever remains standing and hope for the best.

Dave Goldberg covers the National Football League for The Associated Press.



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