So what do we know about Week 15? Based on early practice reports, here's what we're hearing on the injury front.
Marion Barber, RB, Cowboys: When was the last time a pinkie toe caused so much drama? Considering a teammate's pinkie finger generated even more drama, perhaps we should not be surprised that there is so much discussion in Dallas about a digit. Barber, who sat out Week 14's contest because of a dislocated toe and a strained calf, looks as if he will play Sunday night, but the Cowboys now have more confidence in backup Tashard Choice, should they need to turn to him.
To recap, Barber dislocated his pinkie toe Thanksgiving Day and was forced to exit the game early. Subsequent tests revealed no fractures, meaning his injury was less complicated than it could have been. Sighs of relief could be heard all around fantasy leagues, as Barber had 10 days to recover between games and was expected to play in Week 14. By the middle of the week, Barber owners felt reassured because coach Wade Phillips had indicated Barber would play against the Steelers. However, by Friday, that confidence began to waver, as Barber had not made an appearance on the practice field and apparently was having a little more difficulty returning than expected. On Saturday, anxiety turned to panic as Barber owners scrambled to find a replacement -- it was announced Barber hadn't even traveled to Pittsburgh with the Cowboys because they were that certain he could not play.
It didn't end there. On Monday, following the Cowboys' 20-13 loss, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Barber could have played. Wow! It's one thing for us to wonder what exactly kept Barber sidelined when it seemed he should have been in the lineup, based on the nature of the injury and early indications from the team. It's a much bigger issue when it appears Barber essentially was called out by the boss. Jones then attempted to clarify his comments to a San Antonio radio station Tuesday, saying he did not intend to question Barber's toughness; he was just surprised that someone as tough as Barber did not play.
So why didn't Barber take the field? It's true that under normal circumstances, with a simple pinkie toe dislocation and no significant associated damage (meaning no broken bones, no major soft tissue trauma, etc.), it is reasonable to expect that an athlete can play football the following week. He might require some tape to splint the toe, or a shoe modification or insert to prevent excessive mobility and stress on the toe. He also might benefit from a pain-relieving injection that basically would numb the toe. But even with those adjustments, an athlete sometimes struggles initially with the new footwear or his running style might change as a result of trying to avoid putting pressure on the painful toe. These sorts of compensations can render the athlete ineffective or, in some cases, lead to a secondary injury.
As it turns out, this apparently is what happened to Barber when he was trying to do some running workouts earlier in the week. He strained his calf, and according to Mickey Spagnola in his blog on the Cowboys' Web site, it was a collective decision by the athletic trainers to hold him out of Sunday's game in the interest of his long-term health. In other words, he physically could have taken the field, but in evaluating the risk versus reward ratio, a decision was made to keep him off it.
Although fantasy owners might have been frustrated by Barber's absence, it's possible that had he played, he would not have done much or, worse yet, would have injured himself more seriously. Giving him the additional week of recovery might enhance what he is able to do when he takes the field and makes it less likely that he will suffer another setback. Breathe deeply, fantasy owners. The Dallas Morning News is reporting that Barber says his calf is feeling much better. If he is able to practice throughout the week, it is reasonable to expect him to start Sunday against the Giants.
Joseph Addai, RB, Colts: In Week 14, Addai was not the running back fantasy owners were hoping for headed into the playoffs. Sunday might not be any different.
Addai was a late addition to the injury report Friday after he was limited in practice by what the team referred to as a sore knee. He was questionable heading into Sunday's game, and although he was active, he didn't do much before exiting in the third quarter. Following Sunday's contest, Addai again appeared on injury reports, this time because of his shoulder. Of concern is the fact that the Colts added running back Najeh Davenport to their roster, meaning they could be concerned about Addai's availability for this Sunday. The amount of practice time Addai sees through the remainder of the week will give a better clue as to his status. Dominic Rhodes owners should be on alert as the weekend approaches.
Some other players to watch as the week progresses:
Giants coach Tom Coughlin told the Newark Star-Ledger that they will do "the smart thing, the thing which is medically recommended" when asked whether the team will be cautious with Brandon Jacobs this week. Jacobs was not in practice Wednesday because of a sore left knee. His fantasy owners should be prepared for the eventuality that he might rest Sunday, given his recent issues with both knees. Wide receiver Domenik Hixon also sat out Wednesday's practice because of a sore ankle, but reportedly, he has less swelling than he did following the game.
Redskins running back Clinton Portis has played through a plethora of injuries this season but didn't see any second-half action Sunday night, raising concerns as to how much injuries were limiting him. Coach Jim Zorn indicated Ladell Betts saw increased playing time because Portis missed so much practice (and was pass blocking ineffectively). Portis defended himself with a verbal tirade. As of Wednesday, Zorn and Portis had gotten together to sort through their differences, and all appears well again, including (perhaps) Portis' banged-up body. Ultimately, limited playing time Sunday might have been a blessing in disguise for Portis, as he was back in a Wednesday practice for the first time in weeks. Portis has dealt with a hip flexor strain, a sprained MCL, an oblique strain and, most recently, a forearm to the neck. He has played through it all and has been the feature back in the running game throughout. Expect a fired-up and slightly rested Portis to be in the game -- the whole game -- Sunday.
Adding to the list of ailing backs, 49ers ace Frank Gore left Sunday's game with an ankle sprain. The good news is there was no fracture. The less than good news is coach Mike Singletary announced Wednesday that Gore has an "inside ankle sprain" (as in the inner aspect of the ankle joint). The mechanism for spraining the inner ankle is less common (the foot rolls so the sole points out), and the medial (deltoid) ligament is flat and strong; it doesn't sprain easily. That translates into the fact that this injury, depending on the degree of severity, can be tougher to recover from than a standard lateral ankle sprain. Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that Gore did not practice Wednesday, and Singletary hinted Gore will be a game-time decision. It's not looking great for him this week.
The Denver Post is reporting Tatum Bell is in place to be the feature back Sunday. The Broncos lost Peyton Hillis for the remainder of the season to a hamstring injury, and Selvin Young still is struggling in his recovery from a groin strain. Young practiced fully last week for the first time in well more than a month, but as the Post reports, coach Mike Shanahan felt he was not recovered enough to play. Bell is still available in more than 80 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Bills quarterback Trent Edwards might be a game-time decision Sunday. Edwards sat out Sunday's contest with an injured groin, and he might be sitting again. The fact that J.P. Losman was taking all the first-team snaps in Wednesday's practice does not bode well for Edwards. And the Bills started off the season so well.
Players you need to replace!
Matt Jones, WR, Jaguars: We knew the suspension was inevitable, and now it is official. Jones will be sidelined for the remaining three weeks of the season. The Florida Times-Union is reporting that the Jags are considering placing Jerry Porter on injured reserve after he strained his groin last weekend, meaning Mike Walker and Reggie Williams likely will become the two primary receivers.
Fred Taylor, RB, Jaguars: According to the Florida Times-Union, coach Jack del Rio said on his Tuesday radio show that the injury Taylor suffered to his thumb Sunday could land him on injured reserve. Even if that does not come to pass, it's an indication his thumb injury is serious enough to keep him off your fantasy playoff roster.
Don't forget that the Saints face the Bears this Thursday, so get your lineups in early! We'll have the latest injury updates affecting the Week 15 weekend contests and any postmortem on Thursday injuries in the Saturday blog.