The scene seems to be played out over and over every week, and there’s simply no way to avoid it. A player takes a wrong step, a big hit, or is simply running. Then he drops to the ground in pain.
Fans lose a star player to cheer for. Players lose a valuable teammate. Sometimes it’s just for a few weeks, and sometimes it’s much longer. But in this war of attrition that is the NFL season, many of these injuries have huge impacts on the standings. Teams can lose all hope in a single pop.
So far this season, more than a handful of big-name, big-play, high-impact players have been taken away from the teams that need them. Here’s a look at some of the walking – or not-walking – wounded whose absences could have the biggest impacts on their teams.
Giants WR Victor Cruz
The Giants’ offense was just beginning to roll when Cruz went down with a torn patellar tendon. And when he did, it exposed the Giants’ incredibly thin receiving corps. Rookie Odell Beckham, who has been in two NFL games and hardly any full practices, now steps into a starting role and vet Preston Parker becomes the slot man. They also signed the well-travelled Kevin Ogletree, but there’s not a lot behind the starters, Beckham and Rueben Randle, with Cruz gone.
Patriots LB Jerod Mayo
The Patriots don’t look much like the Patriots anymore, and losing their leading tackler (with a knee injury) from an already weak linebacking corps won’t help. Now his job will likely fall to an undrafted rookie (Deontae Skinner) and that’s big, since Mayo was the leader of the group and the one who made the play calls. In years past, we’d all just assume Bill Belichick would just find someone else to fill in and move on. But Belichick doesn’t look much like Belichick these days either.
Patriots RB Steven Ridley
The effect of Ridley’s knee injury (out for the season) depends on your perspective on Ridley, which is always hard to figure when deciphering Belichick’s revolving backfield. He seemed to be their best running back, if the focus is on the running. But they do have Shane Vereen — who has been used more as a third-down-type back — and Brandon Bolden. Ridley seemed to have the most upside, though, if you could only look past his penchant for fumbling.
Lions WR Calvin Johnson
His high ankle sprain has had him in and out of the lineup, but it’s also made him a shell of his former self on game day. And while the Lions still have other weapons, and a pretty good receiver in Golden Tate, they have the potential to be one of the top offenses in the NFL when Johnson is on the field. They probably have enough to reach the playoffs without him, but they could be actual contenders with him. There’s no way to take one of the best players in the game off the field and not have it hurt.
Bengals WR A.J. Green
At this point, the on-again, off-again toe injury to Green is more annoying than devastating, but he likely will be out for a couple of weeks and who knows how much he’ll be hampered the rest of the way. The Eagles have other weapons, but Green is what makes them a Top 10 (or higher) passing offense. He is a consistent big-game player, a small notch below Calvin Johnson, and opens up the field for everyone else. Without him, the Bengals go from possible championship contender to a very ordinary-looking team.
Saints TE Jimmy Graham
There simply is no replacing the best tight end in the NFL, who will likely be out this week and possibly more with a shoulder injury. Obviously Drew Brees has plenty of weapons at his disposal, but Graham is their leading receiver and his size/speed forces defenses into difficult decisions on who to double and which positions to commit to covering Graham. Without him creating mismatches and opening up space for others, there’ll be a lot less room for Brees’ other targets to run.
Browns C Alex Mack
The Browns have surprised everyone with their 3-2 start and a lot of that has to do with their rushing attack, which ranks third in the NFL. When your rushing attack is that good, it has a lot to do with the offensive line. So losing Mack to a broken leg upsets everything. Coach Mike Pettine will have to juggle his line, probably by moving guard John Greco to center. Maybe it’ll still work, but Mack has been a solid force even through the bad times in Cleveland. And the center is usually the leader of the line.
Eagles RB Darren Sproles
He has been such a valuable, versatile weapon for Chip Kelly, both as an occasional runner and receiver and as a return man. There are few running backs in the NFL with his kind of explosion. Now he has a sprained MCL and while optimistic reports say he could be back in a few weeks, the real question will be if the sprain lingers. He’s 31 and small (5-6, 190) so even a loss of a half step of his speed could greatly diminish his importance.
Redskins QB Robert Griffin III
At first, when RGIII dislocated his ankle, it looked like a blessing in disguise for Washington because Kirk Cousins looked terrific. Then the bubble burst and in recent weeks it became clear to everyone why Griffin was such a high draft pick. He’s good. He’s dangerous. He has uncommon talent. At some point he’ll be back, but by then the Redskins likely won’t have a season to save.
Dolphins RB Knowshon Moreno
Injuries have hampered the former Bronco all season, even before an ACL tear sidelined him for the season. With a still-growing quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins need to rely on their rushing attack. They had hoped Moreno would get healthy enough to help at some point. Now Lamar Miller is stuck carrying a very heavy load.
Cowboys G Doug Free
Things had been going so well for the Cowboys and most of it had to do with their offensive line. So the last thing they wanted to do was lose one of the pieces. Sure enough, Free is out 3-4 weeks with a fractured foot. If that’s all it is, it’s not a killer blow since Dallas is 5-1. But without him, there is some question about what will happen to Demarco Murray and the NFL’s best rushing attack, and whether there’ll be a lot more pressure on Tony Romo from now on.
—By Ralph Vacchiano