Written by Julian Rogers
Earlier this month, a report by NFL analyst Warren Sharp revealed that according to calculations based on the NFL’s official injury report and injured reserve data, the Philadelphia Eagles were the league’s healthiest team over the past two seasons.
You don’t have to be an NFL historian to note that during that span, those hale, hearty and unblemished Eagles won a total of zero Super Bowls. The two teams that did win the league’s ultimate prize, the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, finished 24thand 17th in terms of overall health in the two years studied.
Success starts and ends with stars
Are injuries overrated? Not at all, in fact. However, while overall team health is important, it’s key injuries to a team’s star players that most determine a team’s fate. Injuries to role players and bottom-roster special teamers take a toll on a team, but it’s a burden borne by the organization staff as they test the team’s coaching acumen, ability to develop young talent and ability to replace older, broken or otherwise malfunctioning parts while (hopefully) improving.
NFL teams covet playmakers. Stars are stars for a reason. They make plays when it counts. Easier to replace: everyone else. The just-a-guys and the still-developing are far more plentiful than the stars. Every team loses role players each season — even the champions. Historically speaking, teams that lose one or more of their impact players rarely take home the ultimate prize.
Case in point, the last team to win the Super Bowl without their preferred starting quarterback was the 2001 New England Patriots, who were forced to hand the keys to a lowly regarded sixth-round draft pick in week #2, who took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe. We may never know what happened to one Tom Brady, but it’s telling that you have to go back almost a decade and a half to find a Super Bowl winner with a backup quarterback.
OK, bad example. To find a true backup quarterback that won a Super Bowl, you have to go back to Jeff Hostetler of the 1990 New York Giants.
Not just the quarterbacks
While quarterbacks are key, a star quarterback alone cannot deliver a championship. When the champion is crowned there are usually at least three stars that carried the season. Let’s look at the injury story from the framework of how each team’s stars fared, starting with the Seahawks. I’ll also note their prognosis for 2015.
Star 1: Marshawn Lynch
Star 2: Russell Wilson
Star 3: Richard Sherman
Their health story: Sure, Earl Thomas belongs here too, but the NFL has spoken: shutdown corners are more valuable than dominant safeties. None of the Seahawks’ top three stars missed significant time during their double Super Bowl run. The result: top talent, combined with amazing health to their stars and a deep supporting cast, created an (almost) two-year unstoppable force. The Seahawks had their share of injuries to role players — the offensive line took many hits and there was great concern at the start of 2014 of whether the Seahawks had enough healthy bodies for the defensive line. Their prognosis for 2015 is the same, given the same great run of health. It’s not altogether unlikely that a new star #3 may emerge this season with the arrival of tight end Jimmy Graham. The veteran receiver is a matchup headache with an upside the Seahawks have yet to enjoy in the Wilson/Lynch era.
The same good fortune applies to the Seahawks’ 2015 opponents — each NFL opponent has stars that must remain healthy to have a chance at the postseason.
The other guys
Let’s look at the Seahawks’ 2015 opponents from the same 2013–2014 lens.
St. Louis Rams (week 1, week 16)
Star 1: Sam Bradford (QB)
Star 2: Robert Quinn (DE)
Star 3: Chris Long (DE)
Their health story: Devastated at quarterback with the preseason injury to Bradford that shelved his entire season, the Rams had no punch, only grittiness and a stingy defense to get them to six wins. They got next to no help from Long, who was also felled with injuries. They will get no help in 2015 from Bradford, who was traded to the Eagles for new quarterback savior Nick Foles. If Foles can stay healthy and solidify the position, the needle will be pointing up for the Rams. The Rams still look for offensive playmakers to emerge. A consistent QB will help that quest. A healthy Quinn/Long combo would be a huge boost.
Green Bay Packers (week 2)
Star 1: Aaron Rodgers (QB)
Star 2: Clay Matthews (LB)
Star 3: Jordy Nelson (WR)
Their health story: The Packers saw their past two seasons adversely impacted by injuries to Rodgers. Rodgers missed nearly half of 2013 with a collarbone fracture, which almost cost the Packers a playoff spot. He was also hampered significantly in 2014 with a torn calf. His playoff effectiveness was impacted negatively by his inability to create and scramble. With Rodgers leading the way, Nelson has emerged as one of the NFL’s top big play threats (No. 18 on NFL’s top 100 players). He is expected to be fully ready for week one while he rehabs from a “minor” offseason hip surgery. Matthews remains a force when healthy. Despite 5 games missed in 2013, Matthews bounced back with 16 regular-season starts in 2014, including taking snaps at middle linebacker to shore up the Packers’ leaky run defense. A healthy trio, combined with their deep roster of additional playmakers predicts another deep playoff run for the Packers.
Chicago Bears (week 3)
Star 1: Jay Cutler (QB)
Star 2: Alshon Jefferey (WR)
Star 3: Matt Forte (RB)
Their health story: It wouldn’t be crazy to list tight end Martellus Bennett as a star; possibly higher than Cutler. His 2014 output almost equaled No. 1 receiver Jeffery’s. Underrated Forte proved (again) that his reliable versatility keeps Chicago in games. Their defense is devoid of studs and remains a liability in 2015, as it has been over the past two years. Former No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall faltered in 2014 and was shipped to the New York Jets. The health outlook for the Bears once again rides on the up-and-down Cutler. The backup QB plan is a mystery, but the surrounding playmakers are there.
Detroit Lions (week 4)
Star 1: Calvin Johnson (WR)
Star 2: Matt Stafford (QB)
Star 3: Ndamukong Suh (DT)
Their health story: These Lions stars of the past two seasons are three of the most talented in the NFL at their positions. The healthiest of the three no longer plays for the Lions. Suh is now a Miami Dolphin. Johnson, the NFL’s consensus best wide receiver, missed significant stretches of games due to injuries over the past two years: three games in 2014; two games in 2013. Stafford has overcome early career injuries and has started every game over the past two seasons. In 2015, the Lions can expect their defense to step back with the absence of Suh and will have to cross their fingers that Johnson puts in his first full season since 2012, when he led the league with nearly 2000 receiving yards.
Cincinnati Bengals (week 5)
Star 1: A.J. Green (WR)
Star 2: Andy Dalton (QB)
Star 3: Geno Atkins (DT)
Their health story: The Bengals’ 2015 future may most depend on a star not listed here: running back Jeremy Hill, who blew up late in his rookie campaign with 5.1 yards per carry on 222 rushes. Green remains a special talent that missed three games last season. He helps Dalton appear more potent than he would otherwise. Look for Hill to be a bigger star in Cincy than Dalton by season’s end. Difference-maker Atkins is a force on defense. He missed seven games in 2013. He is the key to the Bengals tough defense. Would the Bengals have been swept out of the first round of the playoffs if they had Green and (now former) tight end Jermaine Gresham in the game? They didn’t have them, and they did get knocked out without much of a fight.
Carolina Panthers (week 6)
Star 1: Cam Newton (QB)
Star 2: Luke Kuechly (LB)
Star 3: Charles Johnson (DE)
Their health story: The cast of characters vying for star status in Carolina after Cam Newton has changed significantly each of the past two seasons. It used to be Steve Smithand DeAngelo Williams. Both have departed over the past two offseasons. On defense, the Panthers rely on Charles Johnson and used to have Gregy Hardy, who is now in Dallas. The Panthers still have Jonathan Stewart, up-and-coming star Kelvin Benjamin and linebackerThomas Davis, but Johnson needs to be a bigger star due to his outsized contract. Good health for Carolina’s top three stars will likely mean another NFC South division crown. Newton missed two starts in 2014.
San Francisco 49ers (week 7, week 11)
Star 1: Colin Kaepernick (QB)
Star 2: Anquan Boldin (WR)
Star 3: Frank Gore (RB)
Their health story: Since you started reading this article, two more 49ers have retired. Just kidding (maybe). Seriously, though, the 49ers have experienced an epic talent drain due to retirements and other choices. This isn’t your slightly older brother’s 49ers of yesteryear.Vernon Davis was supposed to be one of the team’s top stars but was virtually forgotten last year. Boldin continues his impressive consistency, which is vital for the still-developing Kaepernick. Kap needs a bounce-back season. Curiously, his somewhat reckless style hasn’t cost him any starts over the past two seasons so expect him to put in another full season in the new Jim Tomsula era. Newcomer Torrey Smith may miss Joe Flacco more than he thinks. Gore is now an Indianapolis Colt, so will not be a factor. The unknowns surrounding the 49ers are a tall list, starting with their totally reshuffled offensive line, defensive line and linebackers. Health alone may not be enough to get the 49ers out of fourth place in the NFC West. Veteran Boldin, it should be noted, has been more healthy in his 49ers tenure than he was during his Ravens and latter-day Cardinals stints.
Dallas Cowboys (week 8)
Star 1: Tony Romo (QB)
Star 2: Dez Bryant (WR)
Star 3: DeMarco Murray (RB)
Their health story: Running back Murray is now no longer a Cowboy, so his rushing prowess and relative health (2 games missed in 2013) will be replaced by a committee. At 35, Romo is at the age where he may be more likely to miss significant time than be available for all 16 games. He missed one start in each of the past two seasons. Bryant has been steadily spectacular and healthy the past two seasons. His health (and contract status) is the biggest key to the Cowboys’ 2015 hopes. With their supporting cast, the Cowboys’ stars are enough for a deep playoff run if health and Dez Bryant’s agent are on their side.
Arizona Cardinals (week 10, week 17)
Star 1: Carson Palmer (QB)
Star 2: Larry Fitzgerald (WR)
Star 3: Patrick Peterson (CB)
Their health story: Even more than the Rams, the Cardinals’ 2014 season was wrecked by poor health. Before Palmer went down with a season-ending knee injury, they were leading the NFL. They could hardly cobble together wins since. The list of missing starters plagued the Cardinals throughout the season. Fitzgerald missed a couple starts in 2014 and may be at the age, like Palmer, that more significant time lost is expected. Peterson has been fully available in his three seasons as the unit’s dominant shutdown corner. It will take more than another full season from Peterson to get the Cardinals in a position to go deep in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh Steelers (week 12)
Star 1: Ben Roethlisberger (QB)
Star 2: Antonio Brown (WR)
Star 3: Le’Veon Bell (RB)
Their health story: The defense in Steeltown ain’t what it used to be. It will be difficult for the defense to regain its lost luster with the departure of longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau. Instead, the Steelers sport some top-level talent at the three most important offensive positions. Brown is called by some of his peers the best receiver in the game (ahem, Megatron). Bell is consistently in the top three of running backs over the past two years. Roethlisberger remains an arguably top five quarterback. Unfortunately, Bell missed three games in 2013 and will miss three games in 2015 due to suspension. Big Ben missed starts from 2009 through 2012, but has played in all 16 games the past two seasons — only the second and third times he’s managed that in his 11-year career. Full seasons from these three point to a deep playoff run for the Steelers.
Minnesota Vikings (week 13)
Star 1: Adrian Peterson (RB)
Star 2: Teddy Bridgewater (QB)
Star 3: Xavier Rhodes (CB)
Their health story: The consensus best running back in the NFL, Peterson, missed all but one game last season due to suspension and two games in 2013 due to injury. He is expected to be fully healthy and ready to dominate again. Few doubt he will bounce back to top form in 2015. Bridgewater’s rookie campaign was an unqualified success. Once he took over the starter’s role partway into the season, he played well and only missed a start against the Packers due to a sprained ankle. The Vikings’ defense remains a mediocre-at-best unit due to ongoing injury issues to key talents. Rhodes is no exception as he missed the end of 2013 before bouncing back to solidify the backfield with 16 starts in 2014. If the Vikings lose Peterson or Bridgewater, Rhodes and other top defenders won’t be enough to get the team a playoff invitation.
Baltimore Ravens (week 14)
Star 1: Joe Flacco (QB)
Star 2: Terrell Suggs (LB)
Star 3: Justin Forsett (RB)
Their health story: Flacco has not missed a start in his seven NFL seasons. That remarkable availability has helped him become one of the best (if not always recognized as such) quarterbacks in the game. He lost Torrey Smith to the 49ers, which does not help his passing prowess. Much-traveled Forsett has only spent one season in Baltimore, but what a season it was. If he can come close to last year’s 1266 yards and 5.4 YPC, he will be huge to their fortunes. Suggs may be getting up in age (32), but he started 16 games in each of the past two seasons. The Ravens are solid in most other areas. If this trio stays healthy, they can go deep in the playoffs.
Cleveland Browns (week 15)
Star 1: Joe Thomas (LT)
Star 2: Joe Haden (CB)
Star 3: Josh Gordon (WR)
Their health story: It’s tough to find three impact stars of the past two years with the Cleveland Browns. Josh Gordon is a rare talent that is also a sad memory. He should be the building block of their future. Instead, he’s out of the league. When he played, he dominated. Haden is the star defender on an underrated defense but has not yet completed a full season in his five-year career. Joe Thomas is considered by many to be the top left tackle in the game. He has not missed a start in eight seasons. He is what you build around, but without top talent at the “skill” positions on offense, the Browns can get totally lucky with health and still won’t make the playoffs.
It’s often said that in the NFL, it’s not who you play but when you play them. Catch a team when their top star(s) are on the sideline and your chances go way up. The talent disparity among the Seahawks opponents’ stars is evident, but each of these teams could defeat the Seahawks if they come in healthy and the Seahawks experience the heretofore unseen experience of missing Wilson, Lynch and/or Sherman.
Of all these teams just examined, the only ones that did not lose their top three stars to injury (or suspension — call those intellect injuries) in the past two seasons were the Seahawks, the 49ers and the Ravens. The 49ers no longer have the services of one of their great stars (Gore). They did make a deep playoff run in 2013, however. The Ravens missed the 2013 playoffs as Super Bowl defending champions but won a first-round playoff game in 2014. The Seahawks rode their remarkable health to two Super Bowl berths.