FLOWERY BRANCH – Lawrence Taylor spent his career terrorizing and sometimes mangling opposing quarterbacks. But even he, the assailant, couldn’t avoid the physical residue of his profession.
“When you get old, everything is hurting,” Taylor said. “When I get up in the morning, it sounds like I’m making popcorn.”
Football is a brutal sport. No player goes through a season without an injury. The only question is whether that ailment involves a broken bone or a shredded ligament, something that can’t be merely iced, duct-taped or sufficiently numbed for the following week’s game. When there’s only 16 of them, the words “can’t play” are avoided at all costs.
Brent Grimes suffered one of those injuries. A torn Achilles not only ends an athlete’s season, it can be career-threatening, particularly for a relative Munchkin cornerback who makes his living running and jumping.
Personally, it’s devastating for Grimes, a player on a one-year contract who was headed for free agency after the season. The question is what it does to the team.
Here’s the answer: If losing Grimes derails the Falcons’ hopes for a special season, they never were going anywhere, anyway.
That’s not a knock on Grimes. He probably was their third-most important defensive player and maybe ranked second only to John Abraham (while just ahead or behind Sean Weatherspoon). But NFL teams lose players every week. The Green Bay Packers lost over a dozen players to injured reserve two years ago when they won the Super Bowl. Among the notable casualties: running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher, linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Morgan Burnett and defensive end Justin Harrell.
“Even though Green Bay is a rival, you have to look at that and say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,’” said Dunta Robinson, who will return as a starting cornerback in the base defense. “When you lose a key player like we did, people can make a lot of excuses and say things like, ‘Things didn’t go well, and this is why.’ But no team goes into a season and thinks, ‘This is how it’s going to play out from Week 1 to Week 17.’
“We play a fast, physical sport. Guys are going to go down. You can’t prepare for when, but you know it’s going to happen. You can’t come in and make excuses because you know what you’re going to get in this league.”
The loss of Grimes will test Thomas Dimitroff. Every personnel guy has an “on-deck list” — street free agents and players on 31 other practice squad. It also will test the coaching staff, particularly Mike Smith (for attitude) and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (for scheme).
An NFL team’s season is defined by how it reacts to adversity. Whether the Falcons come together or fizzle will indicate something about their makeup and mental toughness. Smith believes he has a resilient team. But the Falcons’ lack of consistency in 2011 might have been an indication of problems with focus and mental toughness. So what happens now?
“We’ve been through a lot even since I’ve been here,” linebacker Mike Peterson said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of talking about this, or guys moping about it. We’re going to miss Brent. But this just means everybody else has to turn it up that much more.”
Center Todd McClure added: “Smitty always talks about it: Everybody’s roles are always changing, and they just changed for somebody over there. But [acquiring Asante] Samuel in the offseason kind of prepared us for this, so we have a little flexibility.”
Late in the 2o1o season, Green Bay linebacker Desmond Bishop told ESPN.com: “I think I read an article a while ago where someone called us the no-name defense. I kind of took that a little personal. … No matter who’s in there, we kind of get plugged into one power source. We go out there as one.”
The Packers went on to win the Super Bowl. It wasn’t just because they had Aaron Rodgers. They had a toughness, even arrogance, that’s needed to win a championship. We’re about the find out if the Falcons have that.
By Jeff Schultz
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