A different kind of NFL who's who

Associated Press Updated: November 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm • Published: November 18, 2013 0

Never heard of Bobby Rainey or Andre Brown? David Bass or Matt McGloin? Tony Dye or Rashad Jennings?

They all played critical roles in victories this week, emphasizing the roles of player personnel folks who have to fill holes on rosters.

And there are plenty of holes, particularly up front where the guys create the holes for runners to burst through.

Stars, especially at quarterback and in other skill positions on offense and defense, have been the backbone of NFL teams for decades. Yet depth is tested every day, and in Week 11 that was particularly apparent.

So Rainey, Brown and Jennings stepped in to depleted backfields with the Buccaneers, Giants and Raiders, and were difference makers. McGloin, Joe Paterno's last starting quarterback who developed into a decent college player under Bill O'Brien, went undrafted. He made an historic debut for Oakland, becoming the first undrafted rookie quarterback with three touchdown throws and no interceptions in a game since the common draft era began in 1967.

Bass, a seventh-round pick from Missouri Western — a who from a where? — returned an interception for a TD in Chicago's comeback victory over Baltimore. Dye, promoted the previous day from the practice squad, went 24 yards with a blocked punt for a score in Cincinnati's key win against Cleveland.

For one weekend, they were as much the heroes as Ben Roethlisberger, Vincent Jackson and Jason Pierre-Paul.

While their stories are uplifting and, in some cases, might portend lengthy success — Brown has been starter-worthy when healthy for the Giants, but twice has broken his left leg in the last two years — finding the right fill-ins and nurturing them has become a delicate proposition. It might even be a dying art.

"The whole concept in the idea of player development now has shifted dramatically due to the new rules," says Scott Pioli, who helped build the championship teams in New England, then became Chiefs general manager and now is an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio.

"Certain teams worked one way and player development was a huge part of their program in developing from within. They had a great coaching staff, they had a system, they had an entire process they would bring players through.

"Again, some teams develop players better than others, it largely has to do with coaching and the system and ownership allowing that process to happen. And I think there is going to be a huge shift in that."

Pioli refers to not only the salary cap, which has eliminated stashing prospects and allowing them to develop slowly. He also means the lack of practice snaps for so many backups caused by the shorter work hours under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. The limited snaps still available generally go to the starters.

So uncovering diamonds in the rough becomes a rougher process.

"I thought the Giants under Tom Coughlin, and Bill Belichick up in New England, certain teams you could see develop players from within," Pioli adds. "The teams that did more with less, so to speak, took later-round draft choices and developed their own players into their culture and their scheme. And I think we are seeing that change right now."

The spotlight tends to fall on the more glamorous positions, and even more emphatically when a Seneca Wallace flops replacing Aaron Rodgers, or no one steps up when Reggie Wayne goes down in Indianapolis.

But here's something to chew on from the trenches: 38 offensive linemen are on injured reserve this season. They range from Pro Bowl-caliber players Ryan Clady, Chris Snee and Maurkice Pouncey to high draftees Luke Joeckel (second overall) and Jonathan Cooper (seventh) to journeymen who always find jobs and perform them competently: Ryan Cook, Donald Thomas, David Baas.

The performances of the blockers, especially those on teams that have been hard hit by injuries or inefficiency and don't have adequate replacements, have been notable. For every Denver, which has lost three offensive linemen for the season yet protects Peyton Manning as if livelihoods depend on it — they do — there's a Baltimore.

The defending Super Bowl champions are 4-6 on merit, their offense bogged down by an underachieving run game and not enough time for Joe Flacco to get the downfield passing game going. Meanwhile, the Broncos lose the likes of Clady and barely miss a beat, if at all.

So maybe the biggest issues with "Who's that?" in an NFL team's lineup are up front. You can tell by the smile on Russell Wilson's face when both his tackles, Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini, return, as they did Sunday in a win over Minnesota.

"We all prepare like we're the starters," Giacomini says. "We could dress every guy in our (offensive line) room and plug them in. Kind of like a hockey deal, five and five."

Now that would be enviable depth.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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