With the fantasy playoffs here in most formats, the last thing you want to be doing is hitting the waiver wire or seeing your stars down. The opposite is true for NFL franchises and fantasy owners—they'd much rather see players coming back or better, never having been down at all.
At this stage in the season, players are all fatigued at some level. We're seeing the result of that, both in-game, week-to-week and in-season. Injuries tend to be front-loaded for a season, but the survivor effect tends to diminish, leaving only the elite performers at this point in the game.
This is a tough one to figure out for a lot of fans, but "fatigue" is not one thing. Fatigue is a multifunction, multipoint systemic fault that has to be corrected for. There's no more time in the day for the medical staff to deal with these things now, but like compound interest, the things they were able to do earlier in the season, with prevention or maintenance programs, now pay off.
If you made it this far, you're better than most players. It's no time to let up now. Information is the power and currency of fantasy sports, to paraphrase Billy Idol. Use it wisely. In the meantime, let's look around the league...
Rodgers already shaved, thankfully.
INJURY: fractured collarbone
OUTLOOK: possible for Week 14
There's going to be a lot of "will they or won't they" this week in Green Bay. This article on Yahoo! Sports shows how crazy it's going to be. I mean, some guy at a Clippers game is now a source? All the decision-makers, including Aaron Rodgers, are going to wait for the latest X-rays before making the final decision. It won't be "can he play?"—that one's for the doctors—but "should he play?" Even if Rodgers gets the medical clearance, the team is going to have to decide if Rodgers' injury cost it a real shot at the playoffs.
There's a real chance that Rodgers is shut down. It's not 50/50, but it's a real chance. Ted Thompson, Rodgers and others will weigh whether the chance of reinjury and a complex recovery balance out with the chance at a playoff berth and run. It's impossible now to say how it will go, though it appears that Rodgers will be like most players and push to get back out there.
This is going to be a very tough decision on the doctors. While it will be easy to look at the fracture and determine how far along in the healing process it is, there's no way to gauge just how it will respond to the inevitable hits and falls that Rodgers will take.
One source I spoke with mentioned that the adjustments that the team will have to make also factor in. "They'll have to change their protection schemes because they haven't worked. Will he get outside the pocket and risk hits or stay in the pocket and risk hits?" he asked.
There aren't clear answers, which makes this a day-to-day, minute-to-minute storyline to watch. This could well come down to a true game-time decision. For fantasy players, that's a worst-case scenario, but if you're a No. 8 seed going up against a No. 1 seed, there's no reason not to have Rodgers at the ready. The upside is there. If he's back, he's good enough to start in any format.
INJURY: high ankle sprain, strained groin
OUTLOOK: possible for Week 14
Jay Cutler is available in over 50 percent of leagues, which shows you that half of leagues don't have players that understand that Cutler could come back. Some of those have Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but there are not 10 quarterbacks better than Cutler right now. Even with the time he's missed, he's still the 24th-ranked QB by standard points. Top that off with a favorable fantasy playoff schedule and...
...Oh the injuries, you ask? The Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer notes Cutler hasn't yet been cleared to practice due to the high ankle injury, but you might notice there hasn't been mention of the groin strain lately. That's gotten extra time to heal concurrently, so with Cutler, the issue is the ankle.
High ankle sprains do linger, but Cutler isn't the most mobile and showed that he could be effective even while limited when he tried to play through the groin strain a couple weeks back. It's hard to imagine that he would be more limited this time. Watching Peyton Manning play through a more severe sprain shows what's possible, though Manning's line has helped more than Cutler's.
What Cutler does have is a better arm than Josh McCown and the same weapons. Alshon Jeffery has exploded, and he's still the clear WR2, perhaps WR3 on targets in any given week. It's what's kept McCown a valid option and what makes Cutler's return so tantalizing. Don't miss out. At worst, you have a backup with upside for Week 15 and beyond.
INJURY: post-surgical hip labrum
OUTLOOK: unlikely for Week 14
The first thing to understand is that Percy Harvin hasn't had a setback in the strictest sense. There's no new damage inside his hip and the repairs done in August have held. What Harvin is dealing with now is maintenance. Harvin is seeing swelling inside the hip, along with soreness, after any activity. Even with limitations, Harvin isn't seeing this reduced enough by treatment to have him back even with an extended rest.
Any player, especially one coming back from surgery, is going to have soreness and issues, but normally this will clear up. We'll see players not be able to go back-to-back days at times, but with two weeks or more, this is definitely unusual. Harvin had a series of injections into the hip, according to NFL.com, to try and calm the inflammation so that he can get more aggressive treatment over the next few days, then try to practice by the end of the week.
If that doesn't work, the Seahawks won't have a lot more they can do to get Harvin back aside from patience. If they're willing to hold Harvin on the roster, they can simply wait, keep working at things and try to find something to break the cycle. Once past that, they'll have to find a maintenance routine that works. That may not come until the offseason or it might come in time for the playoffs. It's just impossible to say right now.
Brandon Marshall has had issues with his hip since his similar hip labrum resurfacing. The difference is that he's been very productive in between issues. The Seahawks have to hope that Harvin's lost year will lead him back to production sooner rather than later. However, the signs right now aren't good. It could well be that Harvin, a speed and quickness player, never fully recovers.
OUTLOOK: expected to play Week 14
If there's one lesson we have to have with concussions, it's that severity is retrospective. Yes, I saw the hit Le'Veon Bell took at the goal line. Yes, it looked every bit as bad to me as it did to anyone watching. We all flinched and hoped that Bell would stand up. What we don't know yet and won't until he steps back on to the field is just how bad was it.
Think of this like an auto crash where you're convinced no one's getting out of it and then, the driver emerges, a bit shaken but relatively unscathed. Bell is already back at practice and could be cleared to play as soon as Tuesday. He told ESPN's Scott Brown that he hopes to play Sunday.
While many are still debating the rule about stopping the play when the helmet comes off, I'm wondering why Bell's helmet came off in the first place. There aren't any clear pictures that show whether Bell's helmet was properly snapped, but many players leave their chinstrap off or don't have a helmet that's properly fitted. Even at the NFL level, there are issues that can easily be corrected.
Bell has been productive when healthy for the Steelers and as of now, there's little reason to think he wouldn't be the starting running back if he's cleared to play. Given his progress so far, that scenario is likely. A home game against the Dolphins is a decent enough matchup for those that have him rostered. We'll know well ahead of time, so no hasty roster moves will be necessary.
OUTLOOK: unclear for Week 14
All of the changes that we've seen in concussion management over the past few years started because of a situation in Cleveland. Colt McCoy had a concussion, and because of a series of events he was allowed to go back into the game when everyone at home had a better look than the Browns did. Two years down the line, the NFL needs to acknowledge that the system it has in place isn't working. It's better, and credit to everyone for trying to make it work. But it still needs to be fixed.
Brandon Weeden's situation isn't a perfect analogue of what happened with McCoy, but the implications on the league are certainly similar. Weeden played the entire game and was never checked for a concussion, per The Sports Xchange (via Yahoo! Sports). Granted, he did not complain, and there was no clear shot where he was concussed. But to me, that's proof that our lyin' eyes can't solve this.
The NFL and NFLPA need to sit down this offseason and put sensors in each and every helmet, along with a system to monitor the hits. Any hit above a certain threshold gets a check. It's certainly better than what we have now, and the cost is negligible, especially in terms of player safety. We're talking about a couple hundred per helmet, total, plus the NFL can help develop the technology for other levels of football.
Where I do have an issue is saying that the Browns "missed this." The medical staff had no complaint, no clear shot and even with those, sometimes concussion symptoms are delayed. Simply put, the best tool for the job of monitoring concussions is no longer guys on the sidelines or even an observer in the booth. It's sensors that are widely available now.
In the meantime, the Browns' revolving door at quarterback continues. If Weeden can't go on Sunday, they have Alex Tanney, a QB best known for his YouTube videos. At least it might be more entertaining, and given the talent judgment the new Browns front office has shown, I'm curious if it's not hitting again.
INJURY: post-concussion symptoms
OUTLOOK: unclear for Week 14
Jordan Reed cleared the concussion protocol but had an exercise-induced headache before Sunday's game, which led Washington to make him a very late scratch. (There were reports of "white out" being involved, even though it's 2013.) It's nice to see that Washington did the right thing and held him out and even better that Reed reported it. It's a small sign of a culture change.
Delayed symptoms are always a worry, and even the clearance doesn't worry me. Things like this are bound to happen, but dealing appropriately with concussions is about management and trust rather than rote as the rules are constructed. The culture does require them at this point, but there are signs of change.
As with any concussion, Reed is going to have his symptoms monitored and if he's safe to practice and then play, he will. Remember, Reed cleared the protocol and is no longer subject to it. A return of symptoms doesn't put a player back in the protocols. He's still under the care of the team doctors and athletic trainers. Concussions don't come with time lines and as individual as the responses are, we'll have to watch and wait to see whether Reed returns this week.
Rashad Jennings: Yes, another concussion. Jennings was kicked in the back of the head late in Thursday's game and has made progress. If he's unable to clear the concussion protocols, Darren McFadden will be forced into a bigger role, but the Raiders anticipate McFadden and Jennings splitting carries again in Week 14.
Christian Ponder: Wait, another? Ponder was concussed early in the Vikings game on an unusual "sandwich" play. The Vikings have a revolving door at QB, so they'd love to have Ponder back if possible, but they likely won't rush him. The Vikings are almost completely a run team, passing just enough to keep the defense honest for Adrian Peterson, but Ponder or Matt Cassel aren't good fantasy plays. Cordarrelle Patterson, on the other hand, might be.
Delanie Walker: Even more concussions. I don't have a final count, but I'm sure Dustin Fink will have a count up soon for Week 13. It's going to be one of the worst weeks in recent memory and could wipe out what was a reduction in overall numbers. Walker took an awkward fall, hitting the back of his head, and clearly sustained a concussion. He wasn't evaluated right away, which made me think that the team had quickly ruled him out. Not sure what happened, but it's worrisome. Walker will have to clear the protocol, but he was clearly missed in the Titans loss.
Joe Staley: Colin Kaepernick and to some extent Frank Gore will get the worst of missing Joe Staley. Staley is out at least a week and probably more with an MCL sprain. Adding his loss to Mike Iupati's makes the 49ers a worse run team and forces Kaepernick's hand on reads. The Niners will have to get their offensive linemen healthy if they hope to make another deep playoff run.
Brandon Albert: Albert was carted off, making Chiefs fans expect the worst. While the Chiefs haven't given MRI results yet, the "day-to-day" tag put on him by Andy Reid has some thinking this is a best-case scenario. Albert (and Jamaal Charles) will bear watching this week as the team tries to right its ship after three straight losses.