The Turf Or The Bench?

Jan 1, 2010 by

The unwashed masses demand it and I have no choice but to comply! (It rambles, sorry. Blame the New Year libations. And Happy New Year all!)

Saints starters for the Panthers game: Play ’em or bench ’em?

It’s not an easy question to answer without resorting to bias, however logically based it are. There are those who argue that since the Saints can’t improve their position in the playoffs they should rest their starters. Not a bad argument. The opposing camp thinks that resting the starters could throw off their rhythm leading to a sub-par playoff performance. Also a good argument. Then there’s even a third camp of twisted bastards out there who want the starters in the game the whole sixty minutes because some of them are on their fantasy football teams. (And I’m in the championship game this week and I NEED those points from Drew!)

No NFL player has ever died from an on-field injury in the history of the NFL, so we have that going for us. (That I am aware of. Perhaps there’s a hushed up incident from the early days but I can’t find any. See last sentence, next paragraph¦) Vikings OL Korey Stringer died of heat stroke after a training camp practice in 2001 and in 1979 SL Cardinals TE JV Cain died of a heart attack in training camp.

The only death listed during a game is from October 24th, 1971 when Detroit Lions WR Chuck Hughes entered a game versus the Chicago Bears who led 28-23 late in the fourth quarter. Hughes ran a deep pattern over the middle but the ball was incomplete to Lions TE Charlie Sanders elsewhere on the field. Walking back to the huddle, (or possibly just at the end of the play, sources vary,) Hughes collapsed from a heart attack. Bears MLB Dick Butkus was first to reach him and immediately alerted the Lions bench. Doctors tried to revive him but in the end Hughes was carried off the field. The game was finished in near total silence but no one was told of his death until it was over. By the way, the Wiki entry for this incident lists Hughes as the last NFL player to die on-field during a game, so there must have been others.

Now let’s talk injury. There have been a slew of concussions this year and the NFL is finally taking some action. Both old-timers and young guns will tell you that hundreds of minor injuries go unreported each year because they don’t, or didn’t, want to be the guy that had to sit out, possibly losing the game from their absence on the field. In 1985 Redskins QB Joe Theisman suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg in a sickening QB sack on Monday Night Football, ending his career. (I watched that happen and it’s one of the few replays I turn away from every time it airs. The morbidly curious may look to YouTube, but once is enough for me.)

Over the years there have been severe spinal cord injuries as well. Bills TE Kevin Everett,  and Texans DT Cedric Killings in 2007, Lions LB Reggie Brown in 1997 and Jets DE/DT Dennis Byrd in 1992. All players have recovered to varying degrees but their careers were ended.

Now all of that is scary enough to make you want to just forfeit the damn Panthers game and take two weeks off before the playoffs, but those are extreme cases. Of course there are any number of things that can happen, from pulled muscles to bruises to sprains and breaks, and any one small injury to a key player can be enough to mess up a whole season. What are the odds?

Who knows? Calcuating the odds is impossible at best. You can say that since the Saints average 64.7 plays per game there’s a 1 in 64.7 chance of an injury per player, but you’d be wrong. We have a rough average of 12 kicks/game, (punts, kickoffs and FGs) so that means a 1 in 53 chance for Drew to be injured, 1 in 8 for Hartley, 1 in 4 for Morstead, etc, so you have to do a different calculation for each player according to his average number of plays  and crunch it with accurate on-field injuries to find the true odds. Then somehow you have to add in a multitude of variables like position and playing time. An offensive lineman sees more downs than a kicker, but the kicker is more vulnerable during a play than an lineman. Who is more at risk? Sorry kids, but I just can’t find reliable numbers to do the math and believe me, I tried!

So let’s look at the other side of the question. Sitting on the bench. Last week Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell elected to sit most of his starting line near halftime. This is considered by many to be a smart coaching move. That’s not coaching; that’s mothering. The Jets beat the pants off the Colts, but all their key players are happy and healthy. Well, they’re healthy, anyway. The Colts had the chance of a lifetime for a true undefeated season and Caldwell took it away from them. The faces on the sideline were most telling. I’m not a Manning fan by any stretch of the imagination, but looking at his dejected puss on the sidelines I actually felt sorry for him.

Granted, there was arguably more on the line for the Colts in that game than there is for the Saints in this one, but the psychological effects are still there. We’ve just dropped two games in a row to lesser teams and we beat ourselves in both. I think the starting players need this game to remind themselves, the fans and the rest of the world that we are who we say we are: The next Superbowl Champions of the World!

Risk can be minimized in many ways. Start the key players, reach a certain point, hopefully a lead, then sit them. Substitute the hell out of the starting line every series. Use safe, small, non-spectacular plays instead of crazy turf grabbing monsters  In all it’s a tough question but if it were my call I’d play those boys full steam ahead. I want our best out there and they want to be out there. Championships are not won by caution, but by heart and stones and this team has plenty of both.


-M Styborski

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