“Next Man Up.”
It’s a popular term in football, almost to the point of nausea. It’s also a term that, at its fundamental core, football takes to heart. If you look at every team in the NFL, there are 31 players who do not start on either side of the ball (we could include kickers and punters as starters, but I think we’d be creating a dangerous standard in regarding them as football players). The “next man up” mantra covers two different realities about football: anything can happen to anyone at any time, and that when things do happen someone has to be ready to step up and take over.
Some teams must have missed this memo.
There are a few things to acknowledge before I attack the teams on my list. Obviously the depth on your team will not be as talented as the starters. That’s completely understandable. This is not an indictment of the lack of talent behind those starters, but more a lack of preparation. There are two ways that the “next man up” mantra works properly: front office decisions and coaching. You need to find the right players to fit your system, and the right coaches that will keep them knowledgeable and prepared for whatever happens.
Unfortunately, not all teams are built the right way, and when players go down it highlights these flaws. Two teams, more than any others this season, have looked completely lost when struck by the injury bug.
First we’ll talk about the Indianapolis Colts.
I live in Indianapolis. As you can clearly tell from that bit of information, I like causing myself misery. As a result, I sometimes listen to 1070 AM: The Fan, a ESPN-hosted radio station dedicated to Indiana sports, or more specifically this year, dedicated to whining about the Colts being terrible. I’ve learned a lot from my drive home every day. Mainly, I learned that Colts fans have been spoiled, and now they act like little babies.
But more than that, I learned that Colts fans are skewering their front office for being so unprepared to deal with Peyton Manning’s injury. And as crazy as it sounds, I think their complaints have some merit. The Colts aren’t supposed to be this bad, with or without Manning. Yes, Peyton Manning is obviously a great player, and the Colts were not going to win the AFC South with him sulking on the sideline. But did anyone really think they’d be 1-13?
I sure as hell didn’t. An injury like that highlights the two things I mentioned earlier: your coaching and your front office decisions. And from the looks of things, the Colts lack both. They made a bold move to sign Kerry Collins to a contract, but he took one big hit and decided that he liked the taste of alcohol more than his own blood, and he retired again. That left the Colts with Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, and the tutelage of Jim Caldwell to prepare them for battle.
Needless to say, they weren’t fucking prepared.
The bad side of building a team around one player is watching what happens when that one player isn’t there. Clearly the Polians and Jim Caldwell never accounted for the possibility that Manning’s neck would tire from carrying around that enormous oversized head of his. Here’s why it falls onto the GM and coaches in this sort of situation: when you know that only one player can rule a particular offense, you need to have a backup plan in place. Another offense that the other players can run just in case something happens. Either that, or you have to draft the right personnel that can run the offense you have in place. You don’t just teach your starters a system and hope they don’t get hurt; you do something that all 53 of your employees can understand and execute. If not, you set yourself up for a big disappointment if one of your players go down. And imagine if more than one go down.
Wait. You don’t have to imagine. Because the Bears showed us exactly what happens.
First Jay Cutler went down. Then Matt Forte went down. Then the Bears lost four straight and pretty much destroyed their chances at the playoffs. Caleb Hanie is more than underprepared; he’s underqualified. Hell, he’s undereverything. He has looked worse than Painter or Orlovsky. And again, this is something that goes back to the front office. They knew that Mike Martz was running a complex system. They knew that not every quarterback thrives in this offense. But they decided to stand pat and see what they had with Hanie. I know that twice on this site I said that they shouldn’t sign particular quarterbacks, but there was an available quarterback who knew the offense. And you’d have to think that Marc Bulger could have gotten this team farther than Hanie.
The coaching fails for the Bears are a bit harder to argue, but God dammit I’m going to try my best! Marion Barber has always been a serviceable running back. He has a bruising run style and no fear, and I think a lot of people were excited when he signed with the Bears. And when Forte went down, I don’t think people were necessarily worried about the talent gap at running back. Barber started in Dallas, after all.
But then that game against Denver happened.
Barber made two mental mistakes that led to a Denver Bronco comeback. You can blame this on Barber if you want, and you’d be right; he was the one who made those mistakes. He was the one who deserves blame. But there’s another philosophy in the NFL that goes something like this: if a seven-year veteran makes two mental mistakes in the same game, it goes back to coaching and preparedness. You’d have to think that someone told Barber: “Hey. You. Don’t go out of bounds under any circumstances.” If they didn’t, that’s just poor coaching. And, fair or not, coaches get the blame for fumbles too. Because fumbles show a lack of discipline, and discipline comes from coaches.
Those two teams failed in the face of adversity, but rather than let this article end on such a sad note I’m going to show what happens when the “Next Man Up” philosophy is done right. It’s also going to serve as an example of how to shut anyone up when whining about injuries to their favorite team.
The 2010 Green Bay Packers may have been the most decimated team in the league last year. Nick Barnett, Morgan Burnett, Jermichael Finley, Mark Tauscher, Ryan Grant, and several other starters were placed on injured reserve as the season went on. But they had the right depth and coaching to keep going in the face of adversity. Super Bowl 45 was a microcosm of the Packers’ entire season: Sam Shields, Donald Driver, and Charles Woodson all went out with injury. But the Packers didn’t fold, they didn’t make mental mistakes, and they didn’t make excuses. They just got better, and they kept winning. The next man up was James Starks, Bryan Bulaga, Desmond Bishop, and even some guy named Zombo. It didn’t matter who went down; the Packers were able to rise above it and win the Lombardi Trophy.
So it’s obvious that “Next Man Up” isn’t just a cute little saying to put in locker rooms. It’s a philosophy that can either make you or break you. It made the Packers last year, and this season it’s breaking the Bears and Colts.