As much as coaches like to say, “We can’t use injuries as an excuse,” those words are often voiced while using injuries as, ahem, an excuse. We shouldn’t give teams a pass because someone gets hurt because someone always does. But losing one player isn’t the same as losing a slew of men at the same time, which happened last fall with Georgia and the Falcons.
The Falcons saw four starters lost in their home opener – defensive end Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing for the season, running back Steven Jackson for four games, Weatherspoon for seven. Receiver Roddy White limped through the season’s first two months. Julio Jones, the team’s second-best player, was lost for the duration during a Week 5 loss to the Jets, and by then there was no way back from 1-4. Too many lost players, too many lost games.
Georgia saw Malcolm Mitchell, its No. 1 receiver, lost while celebrating the season’s first touchdown at Clemson. It would get much worse really fast. By mid-October, the Bulldogs were working without their two best tailbacks and three of their top four wideouts. And then, in the penultimate regular-season game, injury was added to injury: Aaron Murray, who hadn’t missed a start in four seasons, tore his ACL.
The Hawks stand as an example of what’s still possible and what ultimately is not. Without Al Horford, they held together for a month, whereupon they lost nearly everybody else. Paul Millsap got hurt. Kyle Korver got hurt. Gustuvo Ayon, who was Horford’s backup, got hurt. Pero Antic, who was Ayon’s backup, got hurt. All but Ayon returned to health, and with three minutes remaining in Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks had only to hold a five-point lead to complete a stunning 8-over-1 upset. They lost the lead and Game 7 to boot, and history was left unmade.
In the cold light of hindsight, there was really no way last season’s Bulldogs and Falcons could have been champions, no way the Hawks should have advanced beyond Round 1. (Although reeling Indiana gifted them a golden chance.) As splendid as the Braves’ reconfigured rotation has been, it mightn’t hold up over 162 games. Minus their best defender, the Falcons — who had a lousy defense already — will have a tough time reclaiming their division.
These are not, let’s stress, excuses. These are explanations. Lose enough players and you won’t be as good. That’s just reality. It is, sad to say, a reality we Atlantans know too well.