It only takes one play to change a season.
The problem for the NFL's 32 franchises is that those plays are rarely touchdowns. They're rarely interceptions and they're rarely field goals. Those season-altering plays usually come in the form of a ruinous injury, and while no team can escape the dreaded injured reserve for a full 16 games, some injuries are decidedly more grave than others.
The good news is, at least for now, that everyone has a clean slate.
Depth charts are instead overflowing, with five important names working their way back into prominence.
Let's take a look at five game-changers that have battled from the IR back into starting roles for their teams.
Jamaal Charles was an absolute dynamo in 2010.
The shifty tailback out of Texas really made a name for himself, racking up 1,420 yards on just 230 carries; his 6.4 yards per carry easily bested second-place Brandon Jacobs' 5.6 YPC. Only Denver held Charles under four YPC in a game that season, and it's not tough to see why.
Charles ranked ninth in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating—a complex metric that takes into account yards after contact, missed tackles by defenders and total rushing and receiving yards gained—from 2008-2010, but statistics don't do the man justice.
He just makes defenses look foolish.
His speed outside the tackles and lateral agility are almost unmatched in the NFL, but he's just as adept gaining the tough yards inside. No player in the league is as deadly on draws and delays, and as soon as Charles sees that space between the defensive tackles and the linebackers, he uses his superior vision to slash right into the secondary.
So it almost goes without saying that Charles' season-ending ACL injury against the Lions last year was absolutely crippling to the Chiefs' playoff chances. Indeed, they never fully recovered.
The good news for Kansas City is that the fifth-year man says he has returned to form in a recent interview with the Kansas City Star:
"I feel good," Charles said. "I feel like I got my mojo back. I feel happy. I feel comfortable out there, and I'm ready to go."
Time will obviously tell for Charles and his reconstructed ACL, but if he can get back to what made him so dangerous in 2009 and 2010, the rest of the league will have legitimate reason to worry.
It still just doesn't feel quite right, does it?
Death, taxes and the man they just call 'Peyton' lining up behind center, iconic blue horseshoe affixed to his white helmet, barking out audibles. Those were the things you could count on since Manning was drafted to the Indianapolis Colts in 1998.
Now he's in a different blue.
The Denver Broncos' navy blue uniforms may be new for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, but the real uncertainty for Manning is having to recoup from an injury. An injury that claimed his entire 2011 season and forced the Colts' hand in releasing him this past March.
He's still the same Peyton Manning, saying and doing all the right things in his new environment, but how will he look come September?
Some familiar faces have joined him at high elevation—Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokley signed on in Denver to play with No. 18, but it's never really been about the cast. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Qadry Ismail, Brandon Stokley, Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, it doesn't matter. We know Manning can throw to anyone and everyone and make them look great in the process.
What we don't know, is how a man that missed exactly zero starts from 1998-2010 can respond to the greatest adversity he's faced thus far.
We'll find out soon enough.
The Bengals are not what would one call poor on defense.
They've got one of the league's more disruptive defensive lines, an athletic, hard-hitting linebacker corps and a stifling secondary. But as the 2011 season wound down and the playoffs approached for Cincinnati, they dearly missed cornerback Leon Hall.
Long regarded as one of the most dynamic defensive backs in the league, Hall's mix of instincts when playing the ball and ability to help out in the run game has given opposing offensive coordinators fits. Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller ranked Hall as his No. 23 cornerback in the NFL despite an incomplete 2011 campaign:
Had Leon Hall been healthy the entire season, he would be contending for a top-10 spot. Hall combines all the tools evaluators look for in a cornerback: speed, quick instincts, fast feet and loose hips. He's also a solid tackler who is a major contributor against the run.
When Hall went down with an Achilles injury last November, the Bengals responded by giving up 270 yards to Joe Flacco and 300 to rookie T.J. Yates, both in losses.
That's not to say those games couldn't have happened with Hall there, but it stands to reason that with an entire side of the field shut down, those quarterbacks would have had a markedly tougher time moving the ball down the field.
With the addition of former Alabama stud Dre Kirkpatrick in the offseason and the returns of Nate Clements and Adam Jones to aid Hall, it won't be any easier this season.
Kyle Williams may just be one of the happiest men on the planet.
After finally succumbing to a lingering foot injury after Buffalo's Week 9 loss to the New York Jets, Williams watched the Bills unravel during the second half of the 2011 season. From a possible playoff berth to yet another top-10 selection in the NFL Draft in the blink of an eye, the ultra-competitive defensive tackle had to see his team slide into irrelevance once again.
Oh, what a difference six months can make.
Enter Mario Williams. Enter Mark Anderson. Enter defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 defense.
Suddenly, the game has changed entirely. Williams never complained about it, and he performed far above his head while he was there, but the 6'1", 303-pound DT was always far undersized for the 3-4 nose tackle he had been playing under former defensive coordinator George Edwards. Consider that prototypical nose tackles Vince Wilfork, Haloti Ngata and Sione Pouha are on average several inches and 20 pounds larger than Williams.
Now, with Buffalo transitioning to his natural 4-3, and standout second-year man Marcel Dareus next to him, Williams is ready for the best season of his career. Both he and Dareus excel at forcing pressure from the tackle position—and both were even able to do so at nose tackle—so now at their natural positions, flanked by Anderson and Mario Williams, they're primed to wreak havoc.
What's more, is that Kyle Williams is hungry.
When asked by WGR550's Joe Buscaglia about whether or not Buffalo has playoff expectations, the LSU grad minced no words:
"Those should always be expectations. Those should always be what you're striving and working for," he said Thursday. "Because if you're not, you don't need to be here. We don't want you on the team. If you're here just to hang around and collect a check, go away. We want to go to the playoffs, that's what we're here for."
As happy as Bills fans must be to hear that kind of talk, the same assuredly cannot be said for interior lineman in the AFC East.
The Carolina Panthers lost 10 games in 2011. In eight of those, they held the lead at some point during the fourth quarter.
That doesn't sit very well with linebacker Jon Beason:
"That was never the style here," said Beason.
Coming off an Achilles' injury that forced him out of action in the very first week of the 2011 season, Beason will attempt to resuscitate a lackluster Panthers defense that finished 27th in points per game allowed.
He will have to do so in an unfamiliar scheme.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott is in his second season with the Panthers, and he'll be looking to integrate some 3-4 looks that the defense all that adept with. Though they did run some 3-4 packages last season, the lion's share of work was done in the 4-3 and, as Beason himself admits, the transition likely won't be seamless:
“There is a comfort level but right now I’m not as comfortable as I should be,” Beason said. “It’s a new scheme for me because it is my first year in the scheme after missing all of last year. I’m doing a lot of thinking out there. I want to make it more instinctive. Make calls fast and be assertive. There is a curve. I think I’m doing a great job with it but I know inside my brain is really going. Sometimes you just want to do it effortlessly.”
Effort has never been a problem for the Carolina standout, and provided that his Achilles cooperates with him this season, stopping opposing offenses in their tracks shouldn't be much of an issue either.