The importance of pro football depth

Dec 14, 2004 6:33 AM

Depth is such an essential element of success in pro football, and one that is easily overlooked. Part of a football team trying to overcome injuries is pure luck.

When QB Chad Pennington went down in the 2003 preseason, the Jets’ season was essentially sunk as Vinny Testaverde (7 TDs in seven starts) performed poorly. The same thing happened this season when Pennington went down in midseason, and retread QB Quincy Carter led a stumbling Jets offense that averaged 14 ppg in four starts (two defeats).

On the other hand, part of it is smart coaching and management. Several other teams have had QB injuries but have effective backups that stepped right in. The biggest story of this NFL season has been the job that rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger has done for the Steelers after starter Tommy Maddox was lost back in September.

San Diego added star rookie QB Philip Rivers, but still kept veteran Doug Flutie and Drew Brees. They didn’t know who would lead the team, but were smart enough to have three talented options.

It’s been Brees who has matured as an MVP candidate leading the way for the surprising Chargers. How would they have fared if they dumped all the other QBs and handed the reigns over to Rivers? Perhaps as well as the Giants offense since they gave Eli Manning the starting job.

Three years ago the Patriots lost starting QB Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game in the second quarter at Pittsburgh, yet had All-Pro Drew Bledsoe on the bench to come in and lead the team to victory.

It’s far more than just quarterback depth, of course. The Patriots have been remarkable the last few seasons at understanding the importance of depth. Last year New England lost All-Pro starting center Damian Woody in the playoffs, but were able to insert little-known Russ Hochstein and still ran for 127 yards in the Super Bowl against a fierce Carolina front four.

This season, the Pats have had key injuries to the secondary, losing All-Pro CB Ty Law and starter Tyrone Poole. Yet, they’ve moved safety Rodney Harrison and Asante Samuel to corner and even use WR Troy Brown as a defensive back in passing situations. This versatility and use of depth has helped to keep the New England machine rolling for the last two years.

The Carolina Panthers have been decimated by injuries on offense, losing WR Steve Smith and RBs DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis. That contributed to a 1-7 start, before finally adjusting and going on a 4-0 SU/ATS run.

Tennessee hasn’t been able to adjust to a rash of injuries, including star QB Steve McNair and a depleted secondary. The Titans offense has been okay under backup QB Bill Volek, but the defense has been shredded. That explains a 6-3 "over" run in posted totals for Titans games.

The Buffalo Bills offense has been clicking the second half of the season. A big factor has been the play of RB Willis McGahee, who got the full time starting job after RB Travis Henry was lost for the season with a knee injury. McGahee ran for over 100 yards in five of eight games after taking over, and had 91 yards rushing in another. The Bills went 6-2 "over" the total in those contests, and Buffalo’s quality running back depth was key. The Bills also caught fire with a 5-1 SU/ATS run that kept their playoff hopes alive.

There’s no better example of not paying attention to the importance of depth than the Miami Dolphins. Miami had a weak offensive line and QB play a year ago, but their big free agent acquisition over the summer was WR David Boston and overpaying for QB A.J. Feeley.

In August, star RB Ricky Williams retired, and Boston was lost for the year blowing out his knee. Feeley was no upgrade over Jay Fiedler, and it wasn’t a surprise to see Miami implode, starting 4-8 ATS with an offense ranked 26th in the NFL and 29th rushing the football. Heading into Monday Night’s game with New England, Miami was 1-5 SU/ATS at home!

Attention to depth and player flexibility would have served the Dolphins better. It’s not the job of a pro football general manager to be praying every Sunday for players not to get injured. Rather, he should be evaluating and planning on improving depth, as injuries are to be expected because football is such a physical, violent game.