NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Rookie head coach Mike Vrabel has no time to imagine how much better his struggling Tennessee offense might be if only three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker hadn't broken his ankle in the Titans' season opener.
Next man up is a necessity as much as a cliche in the NFL.
"You have to adjust," Vrabel said of losing the tight end with the most receptions in the NFL between 2013-17. "I think the one thing about winners is that they're flexible and they're able to adapt, among other things. We have to continue to move forward with the guys that we have."
Marcus Mariota lost his favorite target, and the Titans are scraping along with the league's 30th best passing offense after winning a playoff game last January.
"It's asked a lot of the young guys to step up," Mariota said.
Halfway through the NFL season, lots of stars, starters and key role players are sidelined by injuries with nobody topping the emotional departure of Seattle safety Earl Thomas after breaking his leg the same day Cincinnati tight end Tyler Eifert had his own gruesome leg injury. It's making a big impact on the standings.
Trying to pick up an extra yard Sept. 23 cost San Francisco its quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, for the rest of this season with a torn left ACL when his leg buckled in the fourth quarter of a loss to Kansas City. That left the 49ers only three 2018 games with the man they signed to a five-year, $137.5-million contract after watching Garoppolo win five straight to wrap up last season.
Garoppolo's injury came three weeks after 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon tore his own ACL for a team that had all five offensive linemen hurt knees in a game.
Now San Francisco's playoff drought is assured of reaching a fifth straight season with the painful lesson for Garoppolo a team needs its quarterback to be available.
"That's something that Jimmy will probably look at differently going forward because now he'll remember this the rest of his life," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Nothing against him. This happens with everyone. You see it every Sunday. It's a reminder for everyone why it's an obvious coaching point."
When Texans receiver Will Fuller tore his ACL, he joined a list that includes Jaguars receiver Marqise Lee who didn't even make it to the regular season; Eagles running back Jay Ajayi; and Miami defensive end William Hayes, who tore his trying to avoid a roughing-the-passer penalty.
Unfortunately, Hayes' foot caught in the ground as he tried to keep his weight off Derek Carr during a sack.
Derek Barnett recovered Tom Brady's fumble to clinch the Eagles' Super Bowl victory in February, but season-ending shoulder surgery has sidelined Philadelphia's young defensive star. Green Bay lost defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to an ankle injury.
Defensive end Joey Bosa has not played a snap this season for the Chargers because of a bone bruise in his left foot, an injury that happened Aug. 7 during training camp. Bosa, the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year, tried to get back for the regular season, then reinjured his foot Sept. 5 and has been sidelined since.
The Chargers hoped he might be back after their bye, but Bosa says he's still facing a week-to-week situation, while people keep asking him when he'll be ready. Being 6-2 has allowed the Chargers to stay patient and avoid rushing him back again after what happened in September.
"The second my foot is ready to practice on a Wednesday I will play that week," Bosa said.
Luckily, the Minnesota Vikings still had Latavius Murray while they waited for the return of running back Dalvin Cook. He played three of the first four games this season after reconstructive surgery on his left knee ended his rookie season, then sat out because of a hamstring injury until returning Sunday in a win over Detroit.
That's not the only issue for Minnesota, which is second in the NFC North after playing in the NFC championship last January. Rookie cornerback Mike Hughes, the 30th pick overall last April out of UCF, tore up his left knee in October.
Atlanta has simply been decimated across the board in a season that started with hopes the Falcons might be the first team to play the Super Bowl on their own field. Both starting safeties and both starting guards are out for the season, top running back Devonta Freeman (groin) is on injured reserve and can't return until December. Even kicker Matt Bryant has been hurt.
That leaves Matt Ryan trying to carry the Falcons (4-4).
Ryan Tannehill has missed four straight games with an injured shoulder, the latest problem for the Miami quarterback who missed all of the 2017 season after tearing an ACL in training camp. That was the same knee that kept him out of the final four games of 2016. Tannehill hurt his throwing shoulder in Week 5 and is trying to work his way back to the field. Luckily for the Dolphins, Brock Osweiler is 2-2 as a fill-in — even with starting left guard Josh Sitton and center Daniel Kilgore both out for the season.
Four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick is off the Dallas roster as he deals with an auto-immune disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, which attacks nerves and leads to weakness in parts of the body. He has no idea when his football career will resume after dealing with numbness in both feet and hands and one arm. "I was very relieved to finally have an idea of what it was," Frederick said.
Rams cornerback Aqib Talib is out at least until Thanksgiving after being placed on injured reserve after needing surgery on an ankle early this season, while the Raiders are in the same situation after putting running back Marshawn Lynch on IR last month after surgery to repair an injured groin.
Denver lost center Matt Paradis to a broken right leg when his own quarterback rolled up on him in the Broncos' 19-17 loss to Houston on Sunday. The 49ers lost running back Raheem Mostert to a broken arm and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley to season-ending shoulder surgery in San Francisco's win Thursday night.