It happened again Sunday, when , starting for the because Matt Schaub is out for the season with a foot fracture, took a long, doleful walk to the locker room late in the second quarter, only to emerge in street clothes, with his left arm in a harness. Leinart said the broken collarbone would probably end his season. He joins a long line of quarterbacks whose late-season injuries have imperiled their teams’ playoff chances.
Peyton Manning’s neck injury before the season began caused the Indianapolis Colts to implode, and Chad Henne’s injury early in the season doomed the Miami Dolphins. But in the last few weeks there have been injuries to Schaub, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler, Matt Cassel, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford. Tony Romo has recovered after breaking a rib this season, while Carson Palmer is playing for the Oakland Raiders because Jason Campbell is done for the season, too. Sam Bradford and Kevin Kolb were injured, too, but their injuries have been relegated to small print because of their minimal impact on playoff races.
So far this season, 22 of the league’s 32 teams have started the same quarterback for every game or made changes for noninjury reasons, according to the N.F.L. On Sunday there were new starters for Chicago (Caleb Hanie) and Houston (Leinart). Twenty-two is not a particularly startling number. Last year through 11 weeks, 18 of 32 teams had started the same quarterback every game or made changes for noninjury reasons. But the number of significant injuries — those that either end the season or require several weeks for recovery — so late in this season threatens to reshape the playoffs.
“It’s hard, down the stretch, looking at a team like Chicago, they’re playing so well, they were really in a rhythm, which is what the playoffs are all about,” said Kurt Warner, an analyst for the NFL Network who, as a quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, saw up close what could happen when a soaring team lost a player to injury at that position. “Then you get into the ultimate dilemma. Regardless of how Caleb plays, when Jay gets back, when is the right time to put him back in? It’s definitely one of those things that can hurt the momentum of the team, even though the team will tell you it’s no big deal.”
In the Rams’ case, Warner’s injury in the middle of the 2000 season — after they had won the in the 1999 season and started the 2000 season 6-0 — did derail them. In the first six games of that season the Rams never scored fewer than 37 points. Warner was hurt in the seventh game. He missed five games, then returned for the Rams’ 13th game, in which they scored just 3 points. They were 2-2 in the final four games of the regular season, then lost their first playoff game.
“We were almost unstoppable before I got hurt, and we never recaptured that,” Warner said.
Before Leinart’s injury, Warner thought the Texans were better suited to withstand the injury to Schaub than the Bears were to deal with Cutler’s being out. That was based on Warner’s belief that Cutler’s skill allowed the Bears to overcome their greatest weakness: the offensive line. In Houston, so much else is going right — the running game is superb, the defense is among the best in the N.F.L. — that the Texans should be able to prevail in a division that is far weaker than the National Football Conference North of the Bears.
Sunday’s results will not change that perception. The Texans beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, although Leinart’s injury puts the Texans’ next five games in doubt. But in their 25-20 loss to the Raiders, the Bears allowed Hanie to be sacked four times. He also threw three interceptions and could not prevail even though Chicago’s defense held the Raiders to field goals on their first six trips into the Bears’ 30-yard line. The Bears are now 7-4, the same record the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons had after Sunday’s games. It is practically impossible to imagine the Bears beating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Christmas night without Cutler, but considering their current state, the Bears now have to worry about the Kansas City Chiefs (who, considering how Tyler Palko played Sunday night, could be starting Kyle Orton) and the Denver Broncos first.