Players returning from injury could help
Some contending teams could get a boost from players coming off the physically unable to perform list.
For the Carolina Panthers fans, who fret over the lack of vertical dimension in the team's usually moribund passing attack, help might be on the way. There could be, in a couple of weeks, some boost to the running games of the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills. And the New England Patriots, who have started the same offensive line combination just twice in six games, will maybe add some experienced reinforcements next month.
But those are the terms typically inherent to the NFL's physically unable to perform list, a kind of life-in-limbo existence for the players assigned there, but also a potential source of late-season succor for franchises able to take advantage of it.
Players on the so-called PUP list characteristically are those not fully rehabilitated in camp from injuries suffered the previous season or sustained in the offseason. Unlike players who are on injured reserve, they are not sidelined for the entire year, but cannot practice the first six weeks of the season. After the sixth weekend, teams have a three-week window in which to evaluate PUP players, and then to make one of three choices: place the player on injured reserve, elevate him to the active roster, or waive him.
This was the first week in which PUP players were permitted, by rule, to participate in practices. There were, not surprisingly, a few setbacks. It is clear, for instance, Chicago offensive tackle and 2002 first-round draft choice Marc Colombo is nowhere near ready to return and could miss the entire season rehabilitating from a knee injury. Cornerback Juran Bolden might be close to getting back for the Atlanta Falcons, but his return isn't apt to serve as catalyst for a turnaround. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss, who is trying to return from a torn pectoral muscle, was told he shouldn't begin practicing again because the team is top-heavy at the position.
But there are also early indications are that some clubs, particularly a group that figures to remain in playoff contention, might benefit from the late-season returns players who spent the first six weeks of the campaign in treatment.
In a league where trades seem to be taboo (as exemplified by the fact there were zero deals at this week's deadline), and where the list of unemployed veterans is incredibly threadbare, the physically unable to perform list offers a relatively forgotten method for realizing a late-year roster boost. It's a crap-shoot, to be sure, but there are some general managers and coaches who have crossed their fingers the PUP list might still provide a player who makes some degree of difference in the playoff stretch run.
Indeed, a few teams gambled that injured players might be able to return at some point in the year, and avoided placing them on season-ending injured reserve. That was the case with the Panthers, who toyed with the notion of relegating wide receiver Kevin Dyson to the injured reserve list when he tore his left Achilles tendon during the spring, but opted instead to take a chance on PUP-ing him.
If the speedy wide receiver returns to practice next week, as is anticipated, Carolina could win that gamble. And the Panthers might even win a few more games, too, by being able to add a deep threat to an offense that is dramatically skewed toward the run. When the club signed Dyson to a one-year, $1 million contract as an unrestricted free agent, it was with the idea that the former Tennessee Titans starter could stretch the field. Now it's not such a stretch to envision that Dyson, a sixth-year veteran whose career has been stymied by a series of injuries, might contribute to the club's push for a division title.
Left tackle Matt Light is the lone New England Patriots offensive lineman to start all six games this season at the same position. That dubious streak will continue Sunday when the Pats travel to Miami for a crucial AFC East matchup, a game in which Light will be involved in one of the marquee one-on-one battles, lining up against Dolphins right defensive end Jason Taylor. The two have waged some interesting wars over the past two seasons but, at Pro Player Stadium last Oct. 6, Taylor dominated the Pats' weakside pass protector. Taylor set the tone with two sacks on the opening series of the contest, once on a nasty bull-rush, the other time streaking off the edge to strip Tom Brady of the ball. While he has just one sack this season, Taylor seems to be warming up for the Sunday encounter, as he had six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble in last weekend's victory at Jacksonville. Light, meanwhile, has had a steady season to this point, both in pass protection and the running game.
Through six games, the Oakland Raiders have been penalized 67 times for 560 yards, both league highs. Oakland is on pace for 179 penalties and 1,493 penalty yards, which would obliterate the current NFL record of 158 penalties and 1,304 yards, established by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1998. Here is a list of the Raiders' infractions:
Penalty -- No. -- Yards
False start -- 17 -- 85
Offensive holding -- 11 -- 111
Encroachment/offsides -- 9 -- 45
Defensive/special teams holding --6--45
Defensive pass interference -- 5 -- 89
Illegal block -- 5 -- 59
Personal foul -- 5 -- 68
Intentional grounding -- 3 -- 29
Offensive pass interference -- 1 -- 7
Others -- 5 -- 22
Stat of the Week
The Green Bay receivers have been a bit inconsistent in terms of production this year, but at least the group seems to be over the "dropsies" that plagued it in 2002. The Packers have just five dropped passes in six games, on pace for just 13 drops for the season. In 2002, the team had 48 drops.
Stat of the Weak
In five games, the Philadelphia wide receiver corps -- James Thrash, Todd Pinkston, Freddie Mitchell and Billy McMullen -- has an aggregate 41 catches for 461 yards and zero touchdowns. Last season, through five contests, the Eagles wideouts had notched 60 catches for 799 yards and eight scores. The only two touchdown passes by Donovan McNabb have been to running backs, one each to Duce Staley and Jon Ritchie. There are three individual wide receivers in the NFL who have as many catches as the Philadelphia contingent, and seven who have more yards.
The Last Word
The injury is, essentially, healed. Dyson has run nearly full-speed the last few weeks but still must regain his stamina. If he can do that, however, Carolina might regain a veteran player from whom it expected big things this season. And the Panthers are hardly the lone club that figures to benefit over the next month from getting PUP players, or players who are currently on the non-football injury list, back onto the active roster.
A few other teams who are now closely monitoring the progress of their PUP players:
Around the league
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.