This week we've seen several players moved to injured reserve status as a result of lingering symptoms from a significant injury. In Tampa Bay, kick returner Clifton Smith's season ended after two concussions, and in Indianapolis, backup quarterback Jim Sorgi has been shut down as the result of a shoulder injury. Perhaps most notably for fantasy owners, two prominent running backs have had to end their seasons early: Clinton Portis was placed on IR as a result of persistent concussion symptoms, and the Houston Texans' Steve Slaton is finished for the season because of a neck injury that led to numbness in his right hand.
Both running backs consulted with specialists this week to help them make the season-ending decisions. Slaton visited with a spine specialist in Texas, and although coach Gary Kubiak told reporters that no surgery is imminent, the rusher was advised to rest to allow the injury to heal.
It is worth noting that Slaton had been removed as the starter after having trouble holding on to the ball. Perhaps there was more to his ball-control issues than a mental barrier. After all, numbness in any part of the hand would challenge a player's awareness and feel of the ball, something so innate that it would be difficult to compensate for. Numbness also is often accompanied by weakness when a nerve is compromised. Although that's not always the case, it's certainly possible that weakness in some of the small muscles of the hand could have impacted Slaton's ability to grip the ball effectively. Obviously there was concern about the potential seriousness of the condition and the recent downturn in his symptoms. Removing him from contact was the wise thing to do.
Portis was experiencing persistent visual disturbances associated with the concussion he sustained in Week 9. He returned to Pittsburgh to consult with concussion experts and told The Washington Post that the lingering visual issues meant he was not cleared for any football activity. Portis is hopeful to return in 2010, assuming he fully recovers, but the somber nature of his injury and the symptoms he is dealing with were clear when he told the Post thoughtfully, "I look back today, I feel like I've had a great career."
Two other players who might be on fantasy rosters have not been placed on season-ending injured reserve, but they won't play in Week 14. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been ruled out after aggravating his separated left (nonthrowing) shoulder Sunday. The concern is not necessarily that he couldn't be effective, but rather that continued pile-driving into the turf on that injured shoulder ultimately could prevent it from healing as it should. Daunte Culpepper is preparing for his Sunday start in Stafford's stead.
Another rookie quarterback who will watch from the sideline this weekend is Mark Sanchez, who suffered a sprain of his posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in Week 13 when he took a direct fall on his shin, shearing the lower leg (tibia) backward on his thighbone (femur). Apparently Sanchez's sliding lessons didn't quite pay off, much to the dismay of Jets coach Rex Ryan. The sprain was reported as a minor one, but there is still pain, swelling and instability, which would make movement challenging.
In addition to rehabilitating the right knee, Sanchez will need to wear a brace on it to help provide stability. This will accompany the brace he already wears on his left knee to provide patellar (kneecap) support, something he has worn since suffering a patellar dislocation while at USC. If a player feels slowed by the presence of one brace, two make him feel as if he's standing still. The addition of a brace, although important for protection, certainly won't make the inclination to slide any easier. Sanchez will benefit from some additional time to rest his knee and regain his strength, which he will need to better evade the pass rush, at least if he intends to remain upright.
So who will be on the field for your fantasy playoff matchups heading into Week 14? Here's what we're hearing:
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons: Ryan hyperextended his toe in Week 12 and sat out Week 13 as a result. After his consultation with Dr. Robert Anderson resulted in a return to Atlanta for rehabilitation (as in, no surgery was required immediately), it became a question of how quickly he could heal and how soon he could return. Ryan did some private workouts with the Falcons' training staff Wednesday, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the team will evaluate his response to that effort. This likely will be a day-to-day evaluation, and the Falcons won't necessarily tip their hand before late in the week.
Keep in mind that just because Ryan does not need surgery, at least not yet, it does not minimize the nature of the injury. This is Ryan's right big toe, which he uses to plant his right foot, which in turn provides him leverage to throw deep balls. He also must pivot on that toe when rolling right to hand off or move out of the pocket. The toe can be protected to some degree with tape, and he can use an insert in his shoe to control toe motion, but the injury still impacts his ability to use the toe normally. Beyond the concern of managing the toe, the team must be evaluating whether Ryan can move well enough to protect himself from taking hits that could result in a completely different injury. The fact that the Falcons also are dealing with injuries on the offensive line further clouds the picture. Ryan's return will be a balance of pain control and functionality, and it remains to be seen whether that can happen by this weekend.
Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks: Hasselbeck sat out Wednesday's practice because of a sore shoulder, but there is no reason to think he will miss Sunday's game. Expect Hasselbeck to be ready to face the Texans.
Jake Delhomme, Carolina Panthers: Delhomme did not practice Wednesday and is still recovering from a broken finger in his throwing hand. Until he can grip the ball adequately and throw effectively, he will remain on the sideline. Expect Matt Moore to start again this weekend.
Michael Turner, Falcons: Turner did not practice Wednesday as he continues to nurse an ailing right ankle. Coach Mike Smith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was "hopeful" that Turner would be able to practice Thursday. It's hard to imagine Turner will be ready to return in Week 14 given that he suffered a setback less than two weeks ago to an ankle that had not fully healed.
There have been reports that this latest injury is more of a lateral ankle sprain (the most common), while the initial injury was the more serious high-ankle version. Although you could spin it positively that Turner did not specifically suffer another direct injury to the top of the ankle, the negative spin is that a second injury to the outer aspect of the joint renders the ankle less stable overall.
Because Turner is not so much a lateral, shifty runner but rather a strong, bulldozing straight-ahead type, the lateral ankle sprain as a stand-alone injury might not be terribly limiting. The high-ankle sprain, however, is stressed with all motion, especially forward movement. Combine that with the size and power of Turner's lower body and the load that the joint must bear with running and driving him forward, and decreased stability becomes especially problematic. Failure of the joint to heal adequately (as in returning to play too soon) could result in longer-term consequences for Turner's ankle. Given his talent and relative youth (after all, his backup years in San Diego preserved his football age), such an outcome would be a shame. As much as the Falcons and his fantasy owners would like to have him on the field, it would not be surprising if there is a more conservative approach in place now.
Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles: Westbrook returned to limited practice this week for the first time since suffering his second concussion of the season in Week 10. Westbrook clearly is conflicted about wanting to return to play while anxious about the possible long-term consequences. As Westbrook told reporters, "I don't think I'm scared to play the game of football," but he added that what concerns him are "things that are happening now inside the game of football ... that can really affect my life as far down the road [when I'm] 30, 40, 50 years old." Westbrook is speaking to the questions many players will have as they face recovery from these types of head injuries. This is exactly the reason that returning to play after a head injury is being guarded more stringently around the NFL.
As far as Westbrook's status, it's unlikely he will be active for Week 14, as the team is taking great care to move slowly and gradually with regard to increasing his workload. If all continues well, however, and Westbrook continues to gain confidence about his condition, it does look as if he could make a return this season.
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: Williams sat out Sunday's game because of an ankle sprain but was back in practice Wednesday. It certainly appears he will be ready to go for Sunday's matchup against the New England Patriots. Teammate Jonathan Stewart took Wednesday off, as has been the running back's pattern. He, too, is expected to play Sunday.
Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams: Jackson did not practice Wednesday, which isn't surprising considering he hasn't practiced at all during the past two weeks. Jackson still has managed to play through a sore back every week, however, despite not being at his best. It sounds as if the team is continuing with the plan of allowing Jackson to rest during the week with the goal of having him available on Sunday. We will update his status Saturday.
Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers: Ward is under close watch because his game is Thursday night. He suffered a hamstring injury in Week 13, and although the strain has been reported as minor, the short week does not bode well for him playing. Consider the variables involved: A minor muscle strain can turn into a more significant injury if there is further damage to the tissue before it has had a chance to heal; the weather in Cleveland is expected to be frigid (19 degrees, along with a chance for snow and some gusty winds), and that is just not kind to muscles; and, well, the opponent is the Cleveland Browns. Sure, the Steelers have had their share of challenges what with losing repeatedly in the fourth quarter and all, but they should be able to handle this one with or without Ward. As further evidence that the Steelers have made contingency plans, they signed wide receiver Tyler Grisham from the practice squad.
Ward did return to limited practice Wednesday, and the team has officially listed him as questionable. He might be given the opportunity to warm up before the game and test the leg, but given the arguments for resting him this week, it's hard to imagine he'll play. He might be one of the toughest players in the league, but he is dealing with one of the most unpredictable and problematic injuries for anyone who depends on speed. Even if he does manage to suit up, expect it to be for only a limited window.
DeSean Jackson, Eagles: Jackson suffered a concussion in Week 12, and just as he indicated that he expected to sit out in Week 13 (which he did), he is now saying he expects to play Sunday. Jackson did return to practice Wednesday, and presuming no setbacks, he looks on target to return this week.
Be sure to check back on Saturday for post-Friday NFL injury report updates on all your fantasy players heading into the weekend.
See you at the injury chats (Tuesday and Friday 11 a.m.-noon, and Sunday pregame 10-10:30 a.m.). And check out Fantasy Football Now on Sundays at ESPN.com from 11:30 a.m. ET to kickoff for last-minute inactives, rankings and more!