Since the NFL and AFL clasped hands in 1970, rosters in pro football have increased from 40 to 53 players. Throw in the practice squad, and there are 61 men immediately available nowadays to any team.
And yet clubs — even the most successful ones — always are running short. Sunday’s game between the Washington Redskins and New England Patriots was a classic example. The Redskins‘ offensive line included a right tackle, Tyler Polumbus, who began the season on the unemployment line, and a left guard, Mo Hurt, who started out on the practice squad. The Patriots‘ secondary, meanwhile, featured two wide receivers, Matt Slater and Julian Edelman, posing as emergency defensive backs.
Which makes you wonder: If coaches still had 40 players at their disposal, would they be suiting up the bus driver?
The Redskins did miraculously well under the circumstances, gaining a season-high 463 yards (They were wonderfully balanced yards, too — 293 passing, 170 rushing.) But part of that, no doubt, was because the Patriots had wideouts instead of actual DBs chasing after Jabar Gaffney, Donte Stallworth and Santana Moss.
Even David Anderson, signed a month ago as a street free agent, got into the act, scoring his first touchdown for Washington (and just the fourth of his six-year career). Indeed, the game plan, Anderson said Monday, was to use as many three- and four-receiver sets as possible — so the Patriotshad to keep Slater and Edelman on the field.
Gaffney smiled. “I think I probably would have played a little DB by now,” he said.
Wild, isn’t it? I’ve given Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen plenty of grief for constantly being caught short-handed, personnel-wise. (Not that they didn’t deserve it.) But it’s a league-wide issue, one that affects the dregs and the elite alike. All it takes is multiple injuries at the same position — or maybe a couple of starters who get caught inhaling something on the prohibited list.
You wouldn’t think 61-man rosters would be spread so thin. But the injury rate is high, and sometimes you have to be creative if you want to continue to deploy, as Bill Belichick regularly does, six or seven defensive backs. It’s a guessing game, really, and coaches just hope they don’t run out of bodies at a particular spot too often.
The Redskins, by the way, weren’t the only team Sunday throwing passes to a receiver who was recently out on the street. In the final minutes, when the Patriots were at the Washington 4 and trying to put the game away, Tom Brady fired the ball in the general direction of Tiquan Underwood.
Who, you ask, is Tiquan Underwood? He’s a third-year pro who was cut by Jacksonville this summer and then picked up — and dropped — twice by New England before being signed a third time in Week 12. Career catches: 10. Catches with the Patriots: 2.
Think about that. The Pats have one of the premier quarterbacks/pass offenses in the league, and yet here they were, at a crucial point in the game, having to rely on a guy who, figuratively speaking, just stepped out of a cab.
What happened next was even more delicious, though. Brady’s throw was picked off in the back of the end zone by Josh Wilson, giving the Redskins one last shot at victory. Naturally, Brady wasn’t too thrilled — with the pass, hardly one of his finest, or Underwood’s attempt to grab it, which appeared to lack a certain, uh, urgency. This led to a highly entertaining scene on the sideline in which the future Hall of Fame QB exchanged expletives with offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. For a moment, it looked as if Belichick might have to pull a Jeff Van Gundy and attach himself to O’Brien’s leg.
All because 61 players aren’t enough in the NFL anymore. If the wrong one — or ones — get hurt, you have a situation like you did Sunday, with the Patriots playing receivers at DB and targeting a virtual stranger with an important pass.