Commentary

Injured stars sorely missed

Mailbag: Contenders haven't been the same minus players like Rodgers, Wayne

Originally Published: December 4, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Watching the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday made it clear how much Andrew Luck misses Reggie Wayne.

Wayne was Luck's go-to receiver on third down and in the red zone. Last year, Luck connected with Wayne for 106 completions for 1,355 yards in an 11-win season.

Without him, the Colts struggled. Darrius Heyward-Bey is fast but drops too many passes. T.Y. Hilton is an adequate replacement but corners can contain him by holding or doubling him. The Wayne injury moved LaVon Brazill into the No. 3 receiving role.

Even though the Colts have advanced from a 2012 wild card into a likely 2013 division winner, they aren't the same without Wayne. That has caused me to wonder which injured offensive players have been missed the most.

Believe it or not, Wayne ranks third on that list. Without him, the Colts offense is averaging 19.6 points compared to the 29.6 points per game it averaged in Wayne's seven starts. That 10-point drop-off ranks behind those involving Aaron Rodgers and Rob Gronkowski.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesRob Gronkowski's return has reinvigorated a once-anemic Patriots passing attack.

It shouldn't be a surprise the Packers' loss of Rodgers has had the biggest impact in football. Before fracturing his left collarbone, Rodgers averaged 28.15 points a game as a starter during his career, one of the best in NFL history. He averaged 29 points a game this year in eight starts.

Without Rodgers, the Packers are 0-3-1 and averaging 15.5 points a game. That's roughly a two-touchdown falloff. As the Packers try to get him back on the field for Sunday's game against Atlanta, they know their playoff hopes could end if he's on the sidelines.

Gronkowski ranks No. 2 on the list. That shouldn't be a surprise. Coming into the season, I thought his absence would cost the Patriots about eight points a game. My thoughts were that he caught 38 touchdown passes in 43 games prior to 2013. Couple his injury with the imprisonment of Aaron Hernandez and I anticipated an 11- to 14-point drop in a Patriots offense that averaged 34.8 points a game last season.

As it turned out, Gronkowski might be even more valuable that I thought. Brady averaged 20.83 points in the six games without Gronk and 32.83 in the six games with him.

The Atlanta Falcons are averaging 19.85 points a game without Julio Jones. The Jay Cutler injury cost the Chicago Bears 6.25 points a game, going from 29 to 22.75. A loss of a good starting quarterback usually creates a one-touchdown drop.

Joe Flacco is struggling in the red zone without Dennis Pitta. Colin Kaepernick wasn't the same without Michael Crabtree or a viable third receiving option.

But Rodgers, Gronkowksi and Wayne illustrate the biggest impact of an injury on an offense.

From the inbox

Q: I'd like to see the NFL change its approach to the playoff picture a bit. Who gets in (division winners and wild cards) would remain the same, but seeding would be based on win percentage, not just because a bad team won its bad division. As an example, this year the Broncos and Chiefs could finish with the top two records in the AFC, but one will be a five seed while a team with a lesser win percentage -- like Indy or Cincy -- gets a home berth. It doesn't really seem quite fair. Other sports like basketball and hockey seed according to final standings; maybe the NFL should consider that, too.

Leanee in Portland, Ore.

A. Here's the problem I see with that proposal: The Chiefs have had an easy schedule this season. If you play out the rest of the games, they would have the second easiest schedule in football with an opponents' win percentage of .448. They've won only two games against teams with .500 or better records. Because they beat up on weak opponents, should they be put ahead of New England, Cincinnati or Indianapolis, three teams that played tougher schedules and are likely to win their respective divisions? I could get on board if the NFL played a larger number of games as they do in baseball, basketball or hockey, but it's a 16-game schedule and a soft schedule gives a team a chance to pad wins. I'm not trying to take away from K.C.'s great season. The Chiefs went from 2-14 a year ago to 9-3 in 2013, and Andy Reid is the leading candidate for Coach of the Year. I just think the challenge of winning the division deserves the first rewards.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton's uneven play has some Bengals fans clamoring for a new QB in next year's draft.

Q: Do you think Cincinnati should consider drafting a quarterback in the upcoming draft? I've been an Andy Dalton backer since he came into the league three years ago always believing he'd get better in time, but so far every year he's been as roller coaster-like as Geno Smith -- some great games, some really poor ones. The Bengals, in my opinion, have far too much talent and potential to have to base each season as to whether or not their quarterback can consistently play well or not. I just feel another option should be considered to either give Dalton some competition and a reason to play better or to take the team a new direction altogether.

Zac in Wausua, Wis.

A: If there is a quarterback available in the draft as low as the Bengals are drafting, I could see them taking one. However, I don't see a quarterback who is going to be better than Dalton. The Bengals got lucky in getting Dalton in the second round. He's on his way to his third consecutive trip to the playoffs and poised to claim his first division championship. He's not elite, but is there going to be an elite quarterback that late in the draft? I would say no. This is like the backup quarterback argument. The thought is the next quarterback is the better one. I think they will stay with Dalton.

Q: Why don't they play the Super Bowl on Saturday instead of Sunday? Two weeks of hype is way too much. It would also make it better for the fans to have an extra day of rest, and for business owners to have well-rested employees.

Terry in Long Beach, N.Y.

A: Tradition has football scheduled for Sundays. Sundays offer better ratings than Saturday, when more couples and family aren't at home watching television. Saturday is the worst ratings night of the week. Understand this: The NFL loves the hype. Sorry, but that is a proposed change that will never happen.

Q: One call that really galls me is the personal foul for hitting a defenseless receiver. Oftentimes, a QB will throw the receiver into a defenseless position. The offense is at fault for exposing the receiver, not the defense for being in position. If a play purposely runs a WR full speed into a linebacker's space, then the offensive coordinator put the WR at risk, not the LB. In these cases, the defenses should not be penalized.

Tom in Orlando

A: Your thought is 100 percent accurate, but whether the receiver is exposed to a hit by a bad throw, the defender has to watch how he hits the defender. These safety measures aren't going away. If anything, they are only going to be more intense in how they enforce those types of penalties. It's hard to be a defender in the NFL these days as the new rules limits their aggressiveness and force them to think instead of relying on instincts.

Q: Currently we have 32 teams but only 16 good quarterbacks in the NFL. Half the league (or more) does not have the single-most important player a team needs to be successful. Meanwhile, with no third-stringers on the roster, quarterback development is down. So if the NFL expands, are we just going to see more guys like Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder? Hard to imagine London getting excited about that.

Mark in Evanston, Ill.

A: It's not just the quarterback position that is lacking for expansion. There aren't enough quality offensive linemen and other positions also are being impacted by a lack of quality players. Most teams have six decent offensive linemen at the most. Considering all the injuries that have occurred this year, that's not enough. Expansion would only deplete the pool of replacements. The NFL shouldn't expand even to accommodate new teams in London or Los Angeles. I think there are more than 16 quarterbacks who can play well, but there aren't 32 quality starting quarterbacks right now. The backup and third options are about as weak as I can remember. Too many teams have backups who haven't won or even started an NFL game. Quarterback development needs to improve.

Q: In regards to the OT rules, I have a solution that would end games without ties, but I do not know where to send my suggestions. It's very simple: Each team will be guaranteed one possession. If team A scores a FG on its possession, then team B must score a TD on its possession or the game ends. If team A scores a TD with the PAT, then team B must score a TD with a two-point conversion. In other words, whoever scores on the first possession, the other team still gets the ball, but they must outscore the other team on their possession so no ties are allowed in OT. Quite simply, if the team that gets the ball first kicks a FG, then the other team must score a TD to win, they cannot try for a FG.

Denis in Lewiston, Maine

A: If a team scores a touchdown on the first possession, the game is over. Any additions or changes to that rule would delay the final outcome. That facet of OT doesn't need to change. The thought of scoring a touchdown after a field goal might work. In that regard, I like this idea. What isn't addressed is if no team scores in the first few possessions of overtime. That's where the problem lies. If someone scores, then the game is heading to an outcome. What I hate is the idea of no score and no win or a loss. I simply hate ties in football.


John Clayton

NFL senior writer

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.