Dougherty: Impact of injuries makes Za'Darius Smith's absence even more costly
GREEN BAY - Going into the 2020 opener, the San Francisco 49ers were favorites to win the NFC at 5-to-1.
Then in the first six weeks the 49ers sustained a devastating run of injuries that included losing their best defensive player (Nick Bosa), another Pro Bowl pass rusher (Dee Ford) and their quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) for the season.
As the year went on, they also lost their two best receiving weapons (George Kittle and Deebo Samuel) and top cornerback (Richard Sherman) for a combined 28 games.
That’s an incredibly bad injury run even for the NFL.
But while that’s not the norm, it’s still worth remembering heading into this weekend, when the NFC’s four top contenders match up Sunday: The Green Bay Packers (13-to-2 to win the NFC, according FanDuel) at the 49ers (13-to-2), and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-to-5) at the Los Angeles Rams (13-to-2).
To be sure, we’ll learn something about all four teams Sunday. But there’s a decent chance at least a couple and perhaps all four will be notably different in January than they are today because of some combination of injuries and players blossoming and declining.
“It doesn’t matter much, because if a team drops they can always recover,” one scout for an NFL team said of the early-season matchups of contenders. “The thing for this season is staying healthy for 17 weeks. That’s the more the worrisome thing. You’re starting to see players go down like (Carolina’s Christian) McCaffrey and the corner (Jaycee Horn). It’s going to be all about longevity, not so much the matchups early. Who’s going to be standing at the finish line?”
That finish line is a long four-plus months away. But two weeks into the season, there’s a good reason the 2-0 Bucs are clear favorites. They’re getting the second-season bump from Tom Brady on offense — they lead the NFL in scoring — and they have as much talent as anyone in the league on defense.
“I want to find reasons not to like them,” said another front-office executive in the league. “But I can’t. They’re pretty good.”
Still, there are factors that could eat into the Bucs’ edge as the season goes on. One is the difficulty maintaining the hunger and repeating the endurance it takes to win the Super Bowl. The last back-to-back champs were Brady’s New England Patriots in the 2003 and '04 seasons.
“You give everything you’ve got to get the first one and then you’re a little spent,” a third scout said. “The advantage you have in Tampa is the guy at the helm has been there, meaning the quarterback. He knows how to pace yourself and take care of your body and your mind.”
There’s also the possibility of injuries. What if linebacker Devin White or outside rusher Shaq Barrett gets hurt? The Bucs would still be very good, but they wouldn’t be the same.
The Bucs also have a few older defensive players who could decline from last year as the season goes on: pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul (32), speed linebacker Lavonte David (31) and interior lineman Ndamukong Suh (34). If any or all are showing their years by December and January, that could make a difference too.
The Packers saw in last year’s playoffs how even one key injury can matter. After getting through 15 games as healthy as they could hope to be, they lost left tackle David Bakhtiari to a torn ACL in the last week of the regular season.
Against most teams, the Packers would have been fine without Bakhtiari, a two-time first-team All-Pro. But they missed him in the NFC championship game against the Bucs’ swarming pass rush.
This year the Packers are flirting with an even more damaging injury issue. Za’Darius Smith is on temporary IR and out indefinitely because of the back ailment that sidelined him all but one practice in training camp. If his issues don’t abate — and they haven’t since the start of camp — it would cost the Packers one of the two players other than Aaron Rodgers they can least afford to lose. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is the other.
The Packers don’t have another player with anything close to Smith’s ability as a pass rusher. He also changes offensive game plans, which makes the players around him better. If he’s not on the field in December and January, the Packers’ chances of doing something special will take a huge hit.
The 49ers, in the meantime, have already lost two starters for the season: running back Raheem Mostert (knee) and cornerback Jason Verrett (ACL).
The Rams’ biggest injury has been starting running back Cam Akers’ season-ending torn Achilles. He figured to be among their key weapons.
The Bucs’ lone injury of note is to starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who could miss anywhere from a month to the rest of the season because of a dislocated elbow. But he’s not even among their top eight players on that side of the ball.
Now, the likelihood that these teams will grow or regress over the next four months is not to say their matchups this weekend mean nothing. Among other things, they could be decisive as tiebreakers for home-field advantage in the playoffs, both as conference games and head-to-head matchups.
They also matter because they will reveal at least something about the teams, if not necessarily something definitive. For the Packers, they’ve looked by far the worst of the four contenders coming out of the gate. A shaky performance Sunday and the red lights will really start flashing.
“Week 1 nobody played anybody during the preseason,” one of the scouts said. “Week 2 is the bounce-back week. Week 3 is when things start to hone in, focus in. People are getting into game shape, coaches are getting used to their playmakers.”
So sure, the Packers-49ers and Bucs-Rams games matter. But the arc of the long season will matter more. Any or all these teams could look a lot different come January.