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Are the Packers’ Injuries Overhyped?

Anybody that has watched a Green Bay Packers game over the last two months has heard about their “league leading” 16 players on injured reserve and how the team had to overcome the loss of eight starters. 

First, the Packers did not lead the league in players on IR, the Lions did with 17.  Secondly, the Packers only lost six starters according to the NFL’s official game book for Week 1.

Third, obviously losing 16 players is a difficult hurdle to clear but you cannot quantify the impact of the lost players by the number of them, you need to look at the individual players lost to fully understand the impact.  Here are all 16 players that the Packers have listed on IR and a brief look at what that player’s loss meant to the team.

Nick Barnett (Starting Inside Linebacker): Nick Barnett was an impact middle linebacker when the Packers played a 4-3 defense.  Barnett logged 658 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 29 passes defensed, 9 interceptions, 2 fumbles forced and 7 fumbles recovered in 87 games over six seasons in the 4-3.  Clearly, he was an impact player in the 4-3 defense.  However, since switching to the 3-4 Barnett logged 129 tackles, 4 sacks, 8 passes defensed, 0 interceptions, 0 fumbles forced and 0 fumbles recovered in 20 games over two seasons. 

Impact of Loss: It was no secret that Barnett was not an ideal fit in the 3-4 and it has been rumored all season that this would be Barnett’s last season in Green Bay.  Not only was Barnett’s loss overblown, but also it was even less of an impact since his replacement, Desmond Bishop, had a phenomenal year and was rewarded with a contract extension during the season.  Ultimately, the biggest impact Barnett made in 2010 was not even on the field, but in the media with his Twitter war with Aaron Rodgers.

Josh Bell (Backup Cornerback and Special Teamer): Bell joined the Packers in 2009 after Al Harris went on injured reserve.  He received very little playing time and only logged 5 tackles in 2009.  He did not play a down in 2010, as he was placed on IR in training camp. 

Impact of Loss: He was not even guaranteed a roster spot, so the effect of his loss was minimal.  Further minimizing his loss was the fact that it made room for Sam Shields who has played extremely well, especially in the postseason.

Morgan Burnett (Starting Safety): Burnett was a third round pick in the 2010 Draft and he won a starting safety spot in training camp.  Burnett was a very highly rated prospect coming out of Georgia Tech and he was being counted on to be an upgrade over the injury prone Atari Bigby. 

Impact of Loss: Burnett started and played four games before ending up on Injured Reserve.  He only logged 14 tackles, 1 pass defensed and 1 interception but his loss was a big blow to a secondary that was already thin.  Bigby was on the PUP list and Charlie Peprah had to fill in.  Peprah slightly minimized the loss of Burnett, as he had a decent season, but Burnett was expected to be a playmaker and Peprah was more of a stopgap.

Brandon Chillar (Backup Linebacker and Special Teamer): Chillar technically was a backup linebacker, but he played an important role in the Packers’ defense.  He played extensively on passing downs, various substitution packages and on special teams.  Chillar rotated with AJ Hawk on a regular basis as Hawk has proven to be a letdown after the Packers drafted him in the top five in the 2006 Draft.

Impact of Loss: Chillar’s loss limited the Packers flexibility on defense as AJ Hawk’s weaknesses in coverage and rushing the passer were covered up by substituting Chillar in obvious passing situations.  However, Hawk had a surprisingly adequate season and the emergence of Desmond Bishop helped cover up some of Hawk’s shortcomings.

Jermichael Finley (Starting Tight End): Finley is one of the most talented pass catching tight ends in the league and big things were expected of him in 2010 after he ended 2009 on a major hot streak.  Finley was the focal point of the offense until he was injured against the Redskins.  Finley has a rare combination of speed and size as well as soft hands and a knack for getting behind coverage.  Finley also has a reputation as a terrible blocker and he can get vocal if he does not get enough looks in the passing game.

Impact of Loss: I expected Finley’s loss to be far more damaging to the team, but when I look back at the numbers and the performance of the offense, it became clear that the Packers’ offense improved after Finley got hurt.  I have two theories as to why this happened.  As I mentioned before Finley is a terrible blocker, not only that but he shows very little interest in trying to block as well.  That severely limits the types of formations the offense can use when trying to run the ball, as they need to find ways to scheme around his inability to block anything.  The Packers often had to bring in an additional blocker to cover up for Finley and that tipped the offense’s hand and let the defense know the Packers were most likely running.  Secondly, I saw a bit of the T.O. Factor with Finley in the game.  Rodgers always seemed to try to force the ball to Finley, often overlooking an open option or squeezing the ball into coverage.  Greg Jennings is the Packers’ biggest playmaker and he had 14 catches for 185 yards and 3 touchdowns while Finley was healthy.  After Finley got hurt, Jennings had 62 catches for 1,080 yards and 9 touchdowns over the remaining 11 games.  Aaron Rodgers threw 5 of his 11 interceptions and averaged 36.5 fewer passing yards in the five games that Finley was healthy for.

Ryan Grant (Starting Running Back): Ryan Grant is an incredibly underappreciated player in and out of Green Bay.  Grant averaged almost 1,300 yards from scrimmage and 8 touchdowns a year from 2007 to 2009.  Grant was lost for the year on his eighth carry of the season and the Packers’ running game never recovered from the loss.  Grant is a bigger back that creates matchup issues when the Packers spread the field with three and four wide receivers.  He’s not much of a break away threat but he consistently moves the chains and can contribute as a receiver as well.

Impact of Loss: This is the first paler on the list that was devastating to the Packers.  Green Bay employed a running back by committee approach using a third down back (Brandon Jackson) and a converted fullback (John Kuhn) while waiting for rookie James Starks to get healthy.  Grant is not a premier rusher, but the Packers were ill prepared for his loss.

Justin Harrell (Perpetually Injured 1st round Bust): Justin Harrell has played 14 games in four years and has logged 28 tackles in those games.  He appeared in one game in 2010 and then comfortably nestled into his familiar position on IR.

Impact of Loss: His loss was entirely unimpactful in every sense of the word.

Spencer Havner (Backup Linebacker, Tight End and Special Teamer): Havner is the Swiss Army Knife of the NFL playing offense, defense and special teams.  Havner strictly played defense and special teams for the Packers after spending several games with the Lions.

Impact of Loss: The Packers cut Havner in September and resigned him in November after he was cut by the Lions.  He appeared in one game and then ended up on Injured Reserve.  His loss was minimal.

Brad Jones (Starting Linebacker): Jones was a 7th round pick in 2009 that strung together a solid string of games to close out his rookie season.  He came into the season as a starter on the outside, but he got the position by default.  The Packers wanted to upgrade the outside linebacker position in the offseason but did not have the opportunity.

Impact of Loss: Jones was replaced by training camp fan favorite Frank Zombo and Zombo outplayed Jones once he took over.  Jones was a pleasant surprise as a 7th round pick, but he was replaced by an undrafted rookie free agent and the dropoff was minimal.

Anthony Levine (Backup Safety): Levine was an undrafted rookie free agent that never saw the field.

Impact of Loss: None.

Derrick Martin (Backup Safety): Fifth year player that was signed in 2009 and is primarily a special teamer.  Martin played sparingly on defense before ending up on IR in October.

Impact of Loss: Martin was the Packers leading special teams tackler in 2009 but played very little on defense.  He had an interception in 2010 against the Bears, but the overall impact of his loss was minimal.

Mike Neal (Rotational Defensive End): Neal was a second round pick in 2010 who was drafted to be a run stuffing defensive end in the 3-4.  Neal missed the first three games of the season before taking the field against the Lions in Week 4.  Neal recorded 3 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in two weeks before ending up in IR in late October.

Impact of Loss: Neal was drafted to replace the suspended Johnny Jolley at defensive end but he was not ever healthy enough to take advantage of the opportunity.  Neal looked good in his limited playing time, but he was not expected to play a huge role in the defense and would have seen little playing time with how well Cullen Jenkins (who he would have rotated with) played.

Marshall Newhouse (Backup Guard and Tackle): Newhouse was a 5th round pick in 2010 and he did not play a single game before going on IR on New Years Eve.

Impact of Loss: None.

Brady Poppinga (Rotational Linebacker): Poppinga was a regular starter for the Packers when they played a 4-3, but he was a man without a position after they switched to the 3-4.  He started 39 games from 2006 to 2008, but only started four in 2009 and 2010.  Poppinga is a high effort player that excelled on special teams but did not really figure into the plans defensively.

Impact of Loss: Poppinga’s loss was a solid blow to the special teams but he was not going to be much of a contributor on defense.

Anthony Smith (Backup Safety): Smith was signed by the Packers in the 2009 offseason but never made the team.  The Packers traded for him in mid October after Burnett was injured.  Smith played four games for the Packer before landing on IR.

Impact of Loss: Smith was acquired during the season and had little to no established role in the defense.  He was reacquainting himself with the defense and playing on special teams prior to going on IR.  His loss was minimal.

Mark Tauscher (Starting Right Tackle): The Packers’ 2009 season was almost derailed by one of the worst stretches of pass blocking in NFL history.  Mark Tauscher was rehabbing a knee injury and the Packers decided to go with unproven young players to replace him while he rehabbed his knee.  Once Tauscher was healthy, he rejoined the team and helped stabilize the offensive line.  The Packers used their first round pick in 2010 on Brian Bulaga and brought Tauscher back as a veteran insurance plan.  Tauscher started the first four games before injuring his shoulder and ending up on IR.

Impact of Loss: Tauscher was brought back as a placeholder and insurance policy for the rookie Bulaga.  Once Tauscher went down, Bulaga took over and had a great season.  Tauscher is a fan favorite and a good guy in the locker room, but he was clearly on the decline before his injury.

After looking at all the injuries, they can be placed in three categories, big loss, medium loss and minimal loss.  The 16 players breakdown as follows:

Big Loss: Ryan Grant, Morgan Burnett and Jermichael Finley

Medium Loss: Nick Barnett, Brandon Chillar, Brad Jones, Mike Neal, Brady Poppinga and Mark Tauscher

Minimal Loss: Josh Bell, Justin Harrell, Spencer Havner, Anthony Levine, Derrick Martin, Marshall Newhouse and Anthony Smith

The Packers really only had nine guys of any real worth on injured reserve, which is still a lot of players to lose, but they weren’t catastrophic losses like people are making it seem.  They did lose six starters, but three of them were marginal starters at best and all were outplayed by their replacements.  The Packers suffered some injuries but in comparison to their divisional counterparts, they got off easy.  The Lions and Vikings both lost their starting and backup quarterbacks, had injuries to their Pro Bowl receivers and lost starters on the offensive and defensive lines.  The Lions lost six high impact starters and the Vikings lost five starters including Brett Favre and perennial All Pro Steve Hutchinson.

The Packers did not use their injuries as an excuse this season and they should be commended for that.  Had they used their injuries as an excuse, it would have been flimsy at best.

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