Football depth will lead to success

December 11, 2007 2:20 AM
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Depth is such an essential element of success in pro and college football, and one that is easily overlooked.

Big college programs have this as a huge advantage over small schools. Michigan lost senior QB Chad Henne for several games, but had a strong prospect in freshman Ryan Mallett, who played well in wins over Penn State and Minnesota.

LSU needed to beat Tennessee in the SEC title game, but was without senior starting QB Matt Flynn (shoulder injury).

Many schools would have been set back, but the Tigers trotted out strong-armed sophomore QB Ryan Perrilloux, who was outstanding in the 21-14 win. The victory and having a capable backup signal caller both turned out to be huge. LSU is now playing Ohio State for the national title.

Good coaches and pro general managers will build their teams with the understanding that they will lose some players during the football season. This is very different from a GM who takes the attitude that we should be a good team if we don’t have any key injuries.

Look at the Pittsburgh Steelers three years ago. The Steelers already had a starting quarterback in Tommy Maddox, but when Ben Roethlisberger fell to them in the first round (11th pick) of the draft they were delighted. They thought he would go higher. Understand what their thinking was: A player they had rated high dropped in their laps so they took him. They placed an emphasis on drafting talent before need.

The Steelers were stockpiling depth at the most important position. They didn’t anticipate Maddox getting hurt in Week 2, but that’s what happened. They were prepared with Roethlisberger stepping in, winning 15 in a row as a rookie and the Super Bowl in his second season. The world of pro football is a violent game, and injuries are commonplace, making depth essential.

Last season the Eagles lost star QB Donovan McNabb. They had veteran Jeff Garcia off the bench, who was terrific leading them to the playoffs on a 6-1 SU, 4-2-1 ATS to end the season. One of the successes of the Patriots the last few years has been an emphasis on depth.

When coach Bill Belichick and GM Scott Pioli took over in 2000, they noticed the Pats payroll was heavy in star power (guys making $8-10 million), very light on middle-tiered payroll players, and heavy with athletes in the low payroll range.

They set out to change that, paring down the high-salaried guys (QB Drew Bledsoe, WR Terry Glenn), using the money to stockpile depth and talent with more middle-payroll athletes. They also aren’t afraid to let talented free agents walk (Damien Woody, Ted Washington, Ty Law, David Patton, David Givens, Deion Branch).

The Detroit Lions gave center Damien Woody big bucks in 2004, but how has that worked out? The Lions offensive line has been awful. WRs Patton and Givens went for big bucks in Washington and Tennessee, but neither has contributed. Other than quarterback, one player isn’t going to turn around an offense or defense.

San Diego has made some outstanding moves the last few years to augment its depth and talent. The Chargers traded the rights to the top pick in the 2001 NFL Draft to Atlanta, which used the selection to take Michael Vick.

San Diego took RB LaDainian Tomlinson of TCU with the fifth overall pick, then got Purdue QB Drew Brees with the first pick of the second round. They did it again in 2004, trading QB Eli Manning to the Giants for two first-round picks, which turned out to be QB Philip Rivers and LB Shawn Merriman.

Remember when Rivers was a rookie, the Chargers still kept veteran Doug Flutie and Brees. They didn’t know who would lead the team, but had three good options. It was Brees who matured as an MVP candidate in 2004.

When he was up for free agency, rather than bust their budget, the Chargers let him walk and turned the offense over to Rivers.

Stockpiling depth is also essential when injuries strike. Look at all the quarterback injuries or changes this season: Daunte Culpepper/Josh McCown (Oakland), Garcia (Bucs), McNabb (Eagles), David Garrard (Jaguars), Matt Leinart (Cardinals), Tavaris Jackson (Vikings), Matt Schaub (Texans), Steve McNair (Ravens), Chad Pennington (Jets), J.P. Losman (Bills), Marc Bulger (Rams), Jake Delhomme (Panthers) and Alex Smith (49ers).

Part of it is luck, of course, as it’s tough to lose such a pivotal figure as a star quarterback.

On the other hand, part of it is smart management if they prepare properly with a fallback plan.

It’s not the job of a pro football general manager to be praying every Sunday for players not to get injured.

Rather, the smart teams evaluate and upgrade depth, as injuries are to be expected.