Try winning without these guys

CHICAGO -- He is biased, of course, given that his team has plummeted from the playoffs to the pits with its star quarterback still sidelined by a fractured right ankle and showing no signs of an imminent return to the playing field.

But in a quick survey of NFL owners and general managers here, convened for a two-day league meeting that began on Wednesday morning, Arthur Blank was hardly a lone voice weighing in on how the absence of Michael Vick has dramatically impacted the Atlanta Falcons to this point of a season on the brink.

"We're not a one-man team, and we keep stressing that, but ask around and I think others will agree we have a rare guy (in Vick)," said Blank, the Falcons' second-year owner. "I think most people in the league feel he is a difference-maker, right? He's a player with the ability to determine the outcome of games."

Certainly the vast majority of owners, coaches, personnel directors and general managers queried over the past few days agree with the notion that Vick is a unique performer. But even more important is the suggestion that the number of such players in the league, guys who might be deemed as indispensable to their respective franchises, has diminished over the last several seasons.

Last weekend's schedule alone offered graphic evidence of the notion that an unleavened NFL -- because of elements like free agency, competitive balance, and the sense of parity that now prevails -- has resulted in fewer "must-have" performers. That is a radical departure from the mindset of only four or five years ago, when personnel men felt that a diluted league would produce a star system in which every franchise would possess a tiny subset of so-called "difference makers."

The popular consensus, reminded Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, was that the league would become one in which the five superstars on all rosters would determine outcomes in nearly every game. But outside of a few exceptions -- some of them supernovas, like Kansas City return specialist Dante Hall, to whom the Chiefs can pretty much attribute at least two of their eight victories -- even some of the NFL's highest-profile performers are discovering their teams can survive without them.

Last week alone, the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals beat the favored Seattle Seahawks, with star tailback Corey Dillon not even in the stadium. Only a year ago, Dillon was not just the centerpiece of the Cincinnati offense but the most recognizable figure on an relatively anonymous Bengals roster, yet the team functioned nicely last Sunday with second-team running back Rudi Johnson filling in.

Tampa Bay last Sunday shut out the upstart Dallas Cowboys despite the absence of half its starting secondary. The St. Louis Rams won again without tailback Marshall Faulk, who has been involved in just one victory this season. Two-time league MVP Kurt Warner, once considered a player critical to the success of the Rams, has been rendered an afterthought now that Marc Bulger is the starting quarterback, and coach Mike Martz has found ways to compensate.

In the big picture, the New England Patriots have not only survived but now own first place in the AFC East, despite losing 13 starters or top replacements at various points in the first half of the season. Weakside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, the player who was to put the sack back in the New England defensive repertoire, is gone for the season, but the Patriots continue to juggle bodies and game-plan well enough to make up for his loss.

Minnesota survived two games without starting quarterback Daunte Culpepper, when the journeyman Gus Frerotte filled in, and played splendidly. The Colts were without tailback Edgerrin James for three games and got by using a committee approach. There is a long list of examples in which starters were forced to step out of the lineup and reinforcements stepped up and performed estimably in their stead.

And that list, it seems, expands every season. Even as the roll call of truly indispensable players appears to be constantly whittled down.

Truth be told, there is hardly an abundance of players holding the kind of positions on the pedestal currently occupied by the likes of Vick and Brett Favre. It's doubtful that Green Bay could survive the loss of Favre for any appreciable time but the Packers, thankfully for them, haven't had to find out, because of the quarterback's amazing iron-man streak.

Favre was frequently mentioned by those contacted for this story. Another player who was oft-cited was Chiefs tailback Priest Holmes. But the consensus was that the roster of integral players, if not an endangered species list, is clearly being thinned out.

"Everybody wants the superstar player, no doubt, but part of the exercise is to construct a roster where you're not so reliant on one guy," said Miami Dolphins vice president Rick Spielman earlier this week. "Would we be a different team without Ricky (Williams) or Jason Taylor or Zack (Thomas)? Yeah, probably, we would be. But you try to get to the point where you can make adjustments and (compensate) in some way."

That said, there remains an elite group of players without whom their teams would have a problem functioning, and Vick either heads or is near the top of that short list. With the electrifying quarterback, the Falcons qualified for a wild-card berth in 2002 and became the first road team to win a playoff contest at hallowed Lambeau Field, where the Green Bay Packers were viewed as invincible. But with Vick still rehabilitating from a fractured right ankle sustained in an Aug. 16 preseason game, and seemingly destined to be out for a few more weeks, Atlanta is 1-6 and has become a franchise in disarray.

"You look at what the Falcons were with him and without him and, for all intents and purposes, it's night and day," said one NFC personnel director. "People can argue all they want to, including the Falcons' team officials, about how one guy can't make that much difference. Forget it. Vick made a difference. I agree that there aren't many players in the league where you say, 'OK, take him off that team and they're nothing.' But Vick is one guy who fits. Him, maybe (Brett) Favre, Peyton (Manning), Randy Moss, Steve McNair, Ray Lewis. And even in the case of Lewis, the Ravens were pretty competitive without him last year."

The list, indeed, is a very select one. Various team and league officials surveyed pointed out that players like Faulk, Terrell Owens, Donovan McNabb and Eddie George only a year ago would likely have qualified for the litany of indispensable performers. But, as one AFC pro scout noted, even the Eagles found a way, minus McNabb for much of the '02 campaign, to post the top record in the conference. No one thought No. 3 quarterback A.J. Feeley would permit Philadelphia to even tread water last season, but he more than held the Eagles afloat in his six starts.

Said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: "I don't subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as an irreplaceable player. We've had some guys, over the years who we didn't want to go to war without, for sure. But this is a league where the talent level is a lot more even now, where teams are close, and where there aren't as many so-called superstars."

So who are the players whose teams might suffer dire consequences if they were injured or unavailable for any stretch of time?

Not surprisingly, only a few defensive veterans were mentioned by personnel directors and coaches queried for this story, and Tampa Bay strongside linebacker Derrick Brooks was the player most often cited. The feeling was that, in a defense where the weakside linebacker is the designated playmaker, the incomparable and classy Brooks has taken the position and the role to an even higher level. Lewis was also noted, with the belief that he is not only an incredible player, but also the Ravens' emotional instigator.

In addition to Vick, Favre, Holmes, Manning, Moss and McNair, the offensive players mentioned by those surveyed included Drew Bledsoe, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis, Jeff Garcia, Stephen Davis and Brad Johnson. There were actually some offensive linemen cited, but none more than once.

Certainly a player on the rise in the estimation of most coaches and general managers is McNair, who is justifiably garnering midseason support for MVP honors around the league. And several people surveyed insisted the Chiefs could be in trouble if Holmes was ever lost for a few games.

McNair is notable because he truly represents a player nurtured through the years by the Tennessee coaching staff, groomed to be the go-to guy, but at a pace that wasn't all that overbearing or pressure-packed. For much of the quarterback's earlier career, the Titans offense centered around George. But when the leadership baton was then passed on to McNair, he took it and ran with it.

"There are a couple players like that who, in the last year or so, have really catapulted themselves into the premier player ranks," said Washington Redskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato. "Those are guys where you truly ask yourself, 'Just where would those teams be without them?' But, sure, in general, you don't so much find yourself thinking that about more than a dozen players or so anymore."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.