Time is always fleeting in the NFL. The inevitability of a team like the Patriots lingers over the course of a decade or more, but most teams, even ones with franchise quarterbacks on their rosters, are constantly battling short Super Bowl windows. When it comes to the final few years of a Hall of Fame career, the years are even more precious. Which is why panic should be setting in for the Steelers and Saints in the wake of Sunday’s potential worst-case scenarios.
Stark reality stared both teams in the face in the form of a ballcap-wearing starting quarterback standing on the sideline, each of them nursing an injury that could drastically shift the power structure of the entire NFL.
Ben Roethlisberger’s injury appeared to come out of nowhere — he had been sort of messing with his arm and elbow in an Al Czervik kind of way throughout the game. He’d been dealing with some tenderness throughout the week as well, apparently. And at some point during the first half he suffered what you could only call a “non-contact injury” to his elbow.
If he was a pitcher, you’d be waiting to hear the phrase “visiting Dr. James Andrews” with the way he was gripping his elbow in pain. Big Ben returned to the sideline pretty quickly and it seemed as if everything was fine. It wasn’t. Mason Rudolph warmed up, took over for the Steelers and spent the entire second half under center. At no point was there a consideration to bringing Roethlisberger in.
Rudolph actually acquitted himself fairly well — he threw an early interception, albeit one that can be blamed entirely on the pair of rocks attached to Donte Moncrief’s wrists — but it’s beside the point. If something is wrong with Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ hope of a deep playoff run might evaporate. Asked after the game if Big Ben would be having an MRI, He was unsurprisingly guarded.
Look, I don’t want to speculate on what might be wrong with Roethlisberger because a) I’m not a medical professional, and b) it’s extremely early in what is absolutely a fluid situation.
But it’s hard not to draw the comparison to what Bills quarterback Josh Allen dealt with during the 2018 season. In the middle of October, it was reported , which in layman’s terms is a bunch of tissue that connects your upper arm to your lower arm. UCL injuries are most common in athletes who, you might guess, throw overhead. Allen was able to rest and rehab from the injury and would miss five games before returning after the Bills’ bye week. He played very well down the stretch, although he largely leaned on his legs to produce. He’s also substantially younger than Ben; it’s not apples and oranges, but the hypothetical fruits in question are at least not identical.
The Steelers are now 0-2 and are desperate. They should be; they play the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 3, the Bengals at home in Week 4, the Ravens at home in Week 5 and the Chargers on the road in Week 6 before a Week 7 bye. If they had stacked some wins early on, Rudolph might be able to keep them afloat. If Ben is gone for five weeks, now the second-year quarterback has to flat out win them some games. Pittsburgh was a Super Bowl contender before the season. If Roethlisberger misses a lengthy amount of time, they could be contending for last place in the AFC North. It would open up a playoff spot for someone else and potentially help the Ravens try to make a move for the No. 1 overall seed if Lamar Jackson keeps playing well. Big Ben’s absence for a month-plus would be seismic.
Brees’ injury is just as — if not more — concerning, and fairly similar. Brees was hit on his hand by Aaron Donald when the Rams defensive tackle came blitzing into the pocket after Brees released a throw.
Immediately after the hit, doctors were doing a test on Brees’ hand to determine if he had torn the UCL in his hand. This is a major red flag.
Human beings also have a UCL in their hand; it’s what connects the thumb and index finger. And it’s possible that Brees’ injury may have been to his UCL in his hand as well. Certainly the brace/splint/wrap he was spotted wearing indicates it could be a ligament injury.
Making matters even more concerning? Brees is set to visit a hand specialist in Los Angeles. The Saints are flying to Seattle for next week’s game against the Seahawks and their star quarterback will stay behind to visit a doctor. Brees told Omar Ruiz of NFL Media “we’ll see” about the injury — not a great endorsement! — and indicated he has never had a more difficult time gripping a football in his career than after taking the hit from Donald. Brees was seen picking up and immediately dropping a football in obvious pain after the injury occurred.
That aspect means this isn’t simply a pain management issue. Brees can’t just “tough it out” on the field — he may be physically unable to grip and throw the football for an extended period of time. It’s not the type of injury that will improve gradually or that you can work around. Losing his grip could make Brees more prone to fumbling and it could his accuracy to fall off a cliff.
Brees said the injury “felt like it was something a bit more significant” and used the word “concerned” when discussing the injury. We should all be approaching it that way as well: this is a major red flag for the Saints’ season. They lost in L.A. to a good Rams team; that happens. But now they go Seattle for a very difficult matchup. Things don’t get easier after that. The Saints host the Cowboys in Week 4, play the Buccaneers at home in Week 5, then get the Jaguars and Bears on the road in Weeks 6 and 7. A home game against the Cardinals in Week 8 wraps up their pre-bye schedule. That’s four very difficult defensive matchups for Teddy Bridgewater if he’s forced to take over for some lengthy period of time.
The Saints could move from clear-cut division favorites after a very beneficial Week 1 to a team in serious trouble depending on how long Brees is out. Carolina at 0-2 suddenly has life. The Buccaneers winning the division with Brees out? Not that crazy. The NFC seeding ramifications are enormous as well.
Life moves fast, and it could be moving even faster for a pair of teams who fancied themselves Super Bowl contenders less than a fortnight ago.
History ahead for Dolphins?
One team who benefits from the injuries is the Cowboys, a club that’s sitting at 3-0 with the Saints on deck in Week 4. Excuse me. The Cowboys are 2-0 but only for a period of seven days, until they welcome the Dolphins into Dallas. It’s an NFL game, so anything can happen, but this game should be perfunctory given how the Fins have played in the first two weeks of the season.
In their first two home games of the year, Miami lost 59-10 to the Ravens and 43-0 to the Patriots, the latter in a game on Sunday that featured two notable things. One, Antonio Brown played for the Patriots, and he played very well. The NFL is scheduled to interview Brown, potentially Brown’s cousin (Marquise Brown of the Ravens) and Brown’s accuser in a lawsuit filed last week against the wide receiver . The outcome of that investigation is TBD, but from a strict football perspective, Brown only makes an already stacked Patriots team loaded. He appeared to take targets away from Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman, but he was highly effective in minimal work. Brown caught four of the eight passes thrown his way and scored a touchdown.
The other factor in play here? Bill Belichick did not take his foot off the gas for Brian Flores. Part of it was the Patriots defense recording multiple pick-sixes in the second half — that’s not something you can control. Part of me wonders if it wasn’t Belichick as much as it was the Dolphins being historically bad. Miami is tied for the third-worst point differential to start a season in NFL history. Only the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons (-116) and 1961 Oakland Raiders (-99) were worse. The 1973 Saints also started with a negative-92 point differential. The ’23 Jeffersons? What a bunch of lollygaggers!
Anyway, because the Dolphins are terrible, Las Vegas has been put in a weird position. They couldn’t cover as an 18.5-point home dog in Week 2 against the Patriots, so it’s time to crank things up. As such, the Dolphins are huge 20.5-point underdogs to the Cowboys in Dallas. That’s a ridiculous number — there are only 11 teams that have been underdogs of 20 points or more since the merger, according to the Pro-Football-Reference database (which goes back to 1978 with point spreads). Bad news for the Dolphins: none of those teams have won. Good news: those teams are 9-2 against the spread!
Maybe the Dolphins can cover? It seems unlikely they’ll win. Dak Prescott — highlighted as a guy deserving of a huge contract in this spot last week — put together another outstanding performance against the Redskins. He has seven passing touchdowns so far this year and just 11 incompletions. He looks really, really comfortable in Kellen Moore’s offense. Dating back to the Amari Cooper trade, which is roughly around the time Dak says things started to click for him, he has 11 games under his belt. And his numbers are pretty staggering:
|Week 9, 2018 to Week 2, 2019||279||382||73%||285.6||8.2||21||5|
Those are MVP-caliber numbers, folks. Mix in the continued, ahem, fitness of Ezekiel Elliott and the development of various weapons and the Cowboys look like they are very much a Super Bowl caliber team. It’s early and they haven’t played anyone, but they just have to play the Dolphins this week.
Miami appears to be waiting for the Week 5 bye to play Josh Rosen, but does it really matter at this point? Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t getting it done. He was 11 for 21 for 89 yards and three interceptions on Sunday. Why is he playing? It’s fair to ask if the Dolphins know what they’re doing if they aren’t willing to take a hard look at Rosen over the course of a full season. He needs to play so the organization can evaluate him.
It could happen this week because of how bad Fitzmagic was, but throwing Rosen to the wolves in Dallas is a rough way to go. Maybe lob him in there at halftime. Life won’t be easier for the Dolphins this week either, as they are trying to trade Minkah Fitzpatrick (everyone has acknowledged this) and might be willing to move Kenyan Drake too.
The Westgate released a prop bet on Sunday afternoon as to whether the Dolphins would go 0-16. Yes was +350, which is just ridiculous. (No is -450, so you’d have to bet $450 to win $100 if they win a game.) After the Brown trade the Pats became around 4-1 to win the Super Bowl, obviously the favorite. That should be telling how likely the possibility of it happening truly is.
We’ll probably look back at this early start and laugh when they squeak out two wins later in the year, but the Dolphins are currently tracking as a historically bad team, and Vegas is treating them as such.