KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Football is a game of collisions. Always has been, always will be.
When bodies collide, bodies are hurt or injured. Those descriptions may sound similar, but in the National Football League they have very different meanings.
Every player that will take part in this weekend’s divisional round of the playoffs is hurt after six months of training camp, practices and games. About 10 to 20 percent of the roster is injured with a malady that makes participation probable, questionable, doubtful or out of action.
There are common denominators among the eight teams still active, but unquestionably there is one thing that all of those teams share: they’ve won the battle of attrition.
Actually, it might better be said they survived the battle of attrition. Maybe the team that holds the Vince Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl 50 could be said to have won the fight; the others will limp into the offseason.
Consider the players from the eight teams that will not be on the field this weekend: Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, Steelers running back LeVeon Bell, Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady, Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu, Packers wide receiver Gordy Nelson, Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham.
All are either Pro Bowl selections or among the best players at their position in the league. Their absences have hurt their teams, but the clubs all came through the battle of attrition still standing and running toward a championship. It’s why teams have to work hard not only on identifying and developing the 22 starters, but they must do the same with the other 31 players on the roster.
“That’s why I keep coming back to the job that John Dorsey’s done,” head coach Andy Reid said of the Chiefs general manager. “I think our personnel staff has done a great job with that.
“There are going to be injuries, so guys have got to step up with limited reps (in practice). You hope you’re in that position.”
Quite a few times this season, the Chiefs were forced to reach well beyond their top 22 players. In 16 regular-season games they used 58 players and there were 41 players that started at least one game. Turns out those numbers are not unusual among the eight teams still playing. Here are the rest:
• New England: 72 played, 45 started.
• Pittsburgh: 60 played, 37 started.
• Denver: 58 played, 38 started.
• Arizona: 56 played, 37 started
• Green Bay: 57 played, 38 started.
• Seattle: 70 played, 39 started.
• Carolina: 58 played, 36 started.
Despite attempts to limit the physical collisions during a given year, NFL players are still coming up with injuries. The labor agreement implemented in 2011 between the league’s owners and players set previously unheard of guidelines on not only the amount of practice time for players, but what they can physically do during those sessions.
Many people involved in the NFL think the limitations are hurting their product and hurting their players, while providing little in the way of getting the roster ready for contact.
“I once knew a boxer in Philadelphia—boxing was big in Philadelphia—so I talked to this long-time boxer, and he says, ‘listen, if you don’t practice being a boxer, you are probably going to get hurt’,” Reid said. “I always thought about that with football. That’s why we tackle during camp and do the things you do to play football. I thought when the restrictions were put out, probably there wouldn’t be a lot of change. I still think you have to block, you have to tackle and do those things that are important to the game.”
One of the most repeated clichés heard these days in the NFL is “next man up.” The premise is obvious: when a starter is injured and leaves the field, his backup steps forward as the next man and handles the duties.
“The next man up is the best man up,” former Chiefs linebacker Joe Mays said several years ago. “Whenever your number is called you have to go out there and execute whatever the coach asks you to do. Every single player on the team deserves to be here and you never know when your number is called.”
Next-man up is easy to say, but not so easy to implement. The philosophy of next-man up works only if the organization and the coaching staff actively push the concept and work in concert.
Speaking in 2014, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin put into perspective why he and the Steelers preach next-man up.
“I just think that in the overall big-scheme of things, there is very little difference between being a core special teams player and a Pro Bowl player at this level,” Tomlin said. “We’re talking about the tip-top of the pyramid of football players. To discount those backups as anything less but capable, I think you’re selling them short. I don’t want to sell them short from an expectations standpoint, and I sell that to the guys. I want them to know that not only do I expect them to excel and play winning football, but they should expect that of themselves.”
No team in the last few seasons has exemplified the next man attitude than the Patriots.
In 17 games this season the Chiefs have had 10 different combinations starting on their offensive line. Second-year blocker Zach Fulton has started seven games – two at left guard, two at center and three at right guard.
But the upheaval the Chiefs have lived with pales in comparison to what’s gone on in New England this year. In 16 regular season games, the Patriots started 13 different starting combinations on the offensive line. Still, they went 12-4 and won a seventh consecutive AFC East division title, and 12th in the last 14 seasons.
What makes it work for the Patriots is the stability of their head coach, staff and personnel department. Every team has a ready group, a compiled list of players they can reach out to all positions if they need to bring in a body. Since training camp, New England has worn out their ready list. They have made seven trades and claimed 10 players off the waiver wire. Only a few of them are still on the roster, but when injuries popped up, the Pats knew where they wanted to start.
The New England model has been in place since 2000, and the other teams around them in the league have changed leaders many times.
The Chiefs have been unstable for parts of the last eight years, but in the last three years the combination of Reid and general manager John Dorsey have been on the same wavelength when it comes to personnel. Despite injury problems, the Chiefs were not active absorbing new players in the 2015 season. They claimed just two players off the waiver wire: little used tight end Brian Parker and defensive tackle David King.
The only trade they made was sending safety Kelcie McCray to Seattle. The Chiefs relied on the work they did going into the 2015 season, as five players were promoted from the practice squad, with four still on the 53-man roster.
It’s also the work of the coaching staff to make the next man up concept work. The assistants handling each position need to make sure all players are ready to play, without reservation and with the ability to perform at multiple positions. Offensive line coaches Andy Heck and Eugene Chung have certainly gotten that done with their group this season – 10 different starting combinations, eight linemen that started games during the season and three that opened at two different positions and Fulton, starting at left and right guard, along with center.
The work of Dorsey and his staff, combined with what Reid and his coaches get done on the practice field and in the classroom has allowed the Chiefs to not just survive the inevitable injuries, but thrive. Their work got the stamp of approval this week from Belichick.
“They are all productive,” said the Patriots head coach. “I think a lot of it is just their overall fundamental execution. Their offensive line, which has undergone some changes as have their backs, but regardless of who’s in there or what they’re doing, they’re producing. I think that’s a credit to their coaching staff, development of their players and the overall consistency in which they perform.”