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Damage Control Week 17: New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers
Written by Mackie Shilstone   

In the early days of the ABC's "Monday Night Football" telecast hosted by Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, and Frank Gifford, it would be Meredith, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, who would break into a rendition of "Turn Out the Lights, the Party is Over," when the losing team was in the fourth quarter with time running out and no chance of a comeback. Well, it's about time to turn out the lights on this, unique, sometimes chaotic, but never uneventful New Orleans Saints 2012 season, because the party is definitely over.

What was going to be a continuation of previous successes which Saints fans have come to enjoy under the Mickey Loomis/Sean Payton era, quickly turned into a horrific example of a collapse of a former champion by the self-destruction within the organization, starting with Bountygate -- that awe-inspiring example of damage control at its best and worst.

When I was asked by my editor what I wanted to call my column at the start of this season, which is targeted to review injury trends in the NFL, along with an analysis of the Saints' weekly player injury status and that of their current opponent, I had no idea that Damage Control (my column name) would end up representing the Saints' efforts to overcome attempted organizational suicide more than the physical injury to its players on a weekly basis in the NFL.

The NFL itself has had its share of disasters this season, as well, with criticism of Commissioner Roger Goodell's handling of player safety issues, the bounty investigation, and the lockout of game officials. It appears at last count that around 4,000 former NFL players are suing the league in concussion-related lawsuits. Last week the NFL players' union filed a collusion complaint against the NFL. Plus, Goodell's mentor and predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, reversed Goodell's sanctions imposed on players involved in the Saints' bounty controversy.

Damage control can come in all forms, such as the Saints losing Loomis for half the season, Payton for the entire season, and interim coach Joe Vitt for the first six games -- just for starters -- related to the bounty scandal. Add the weekly Saints' Wednesday and Thursday sick bay reports to the mix and it's enough to give Saints fans justification to fill the airwaves of sports talk radio with sighs of depression. The good news is that Saints fans have had a history of past melancholy years with the Black and Gold, such that a season like this one, compared to the Katrina aftermath, is just a blip on the radar screen of emotions.

On the positive side, we all took great pride in the success of quarterback Drew Brees this season with his record- shattering games with a touchdown achievement, not to mention being both the trend-setter for pass completion percentage and number of TD passes. In addition, with the overtime win last Sunday in Dallas, the Saints are at least salvaging their pride -- depending on this Sunday's home game against the Panthers -- to accomplish what Brees said after the win in Dallas. "Even though it's not the playoffs for the 2012 season, we're playing for something. Even if that's building a foundation for future teams, I believe that what we accomplish now can carry over some how, some way." I would like to add to Brees' comments that the Saints need to win BIG with this last game of the season. And, the defense needs to shut down Cam Newton's ability to run and punish him if he does.

As noted in a previous column, we have seen great comebacks from injury this season in the NFL with the likes of Peyton Manning, out all of the 2011 season recovering from neck surgery, only to lead his new team, the Denver Broncos, to a division championship, and the incredible comeback of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson from the brink of disaster from a career-threatening knee injury in 2011, although Peterson was slowed down in last Sunday's Viking's win against Houston with a sore abdomen, which caused him to sit out much of the fourth quarter. This injury definitely will be one to watch if the Vikings advance into the playoffs

High performance can come with a cost, such as the concussion injury to Saints starting left cornerback Jabari Greer, who left in the first half of last Sunday's game against Dallas. With two top defensive backs (safety Malcolm Jenkins and nickel back Corey White) already on injured reserve, and the loss of Greer, Dallas QB Tony Romo went to work on Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson with two 58 yard touchdown passes to Dez Bryant in the first half.

Speaking of the defense, NOLA.com | Times-Picayune columnist Mike Triplett summed up the situation this way. "After Sunday, New Orleans' defense will almost certainly break an NFL record for most yards allowed in a season. The Saints allowed 446 yards (against Dallas) and have allowed 6,512 yards (or 3.7 miles) through 15 games. The all-time record is 6,793 yards allowed, by the 1981 Baltimore Colts."

Historically, going into the last game of the regular season, most teams will list no more than one or two players (1.7 to be exact) "out," which means if you can suit up and the chance of a playoff spot is at hand, then all hands on deck. In the case of this Sunday's game between the Saints and Panthers nothing is on the line that counts. Pride does not, as of yet, get you into the playoffs.

Through week 16 (week 6 was the Saints bye week), the Saints have listed a total of 41 players, as out of action (not counting injured reserve) and unavailable for the respective game. This stat does not count inactive players.

The high point for players out (five) so far this season was a tie at Week 13 against the Falcons and again at Week 15 against Tampa Bay. The low point with only one player out was a four-way tie - Week 1 against the Redskins, Week 3 against the Chiefs, Week 7 against Tampa Bay, and Week 16 against Dallas.

An interesting point was the return against Dallas of offensive tackle Zach Strief, sporting both a previous groin injury and a newly minted ankle injury. No time like the present, when team pride was on the line, to jump back into action to protect your QB.

Also interesting to note, as I pointed out in a previous column, was just how important the bye week is to a team's ability to recover in the NFL. Coming off the Saints' bye week (Week 6), there was only one Saints player out going into the next game against Tampa Bay.

Against Carolina (6-9) this Sunday in the Superdome, the Panthers are coming off three wins out of four contests, with one win against Atlanta in Week 14. A Panther weakness appears to be defensive interceptions, which makes for a nice season end for Brees, like passing for 5,000 yards for the third straight season. Vitt did credit the Panthers with having "good blitz package."

Keep in mind that the Saints are on pace to allow more yards than any other defense in the history of the NFL.

The Panthers are 10th in the league in rushing yards averaging 121 yards per game - led by Newton, who has 707 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, with 18 touchdown in the air.

I found Panthers Coach Ron Rivera's comment he made at Monday's press update quite ironic. Riviera said, "the Saints seem healthier now than when we played them earlier (Week 2) in the season." Why ironic? Because right now the Panthers are basically down to the water boy filling in on their offensive line. When I say that their O-line has a patchwork of athletic tape holding them together, I am not kidding. Look at these examples of the Panthers' damage control so far this season. Geoff Hangartner contracted a knee injury at Week 5 versus Seattle, when he was a guard. Then by Week 5 vs. Dallas, Hangartner was transformed into a center still sporting a knee injury. He was off the Panthers' injury report until he resurfaced again with a knee injury for weeks 9-12.

Hangartner returned to sick bay at Week 15 with a foot injury, which he still had, as of this Wednesday, when he did not practice.

It gets better. The Panthers' other center, Jeff Byers, was listed in Week 1 with a knee injury and did not play against Tampa Bay. He left the injury report by Week 3, only to resurface again in weeks 14 and 15 with a back injury.

And Panthers offensive tackle Byron Bell has been bothered by an ankle injury that first appeared in Week 3 against Dallas, although he only appeared one more time on the Panthers' injury report at Week 4, but trust me, his ankle is still sore.

Need we ask why Newton is leading the team in rushing yards? It is safer in the open field than in the Panthers' collapsing pocket?

The Panthers, out of necessity, (they were running short on athletic tape) rested eight players Wednesday and listed them on the injury report as "did not practice not related to injury." Is this team still alive?

I thought the Saints had O-line trouble, but it pails in comparison to their division rival's ability to find anyone to play on the offensive line. Although at a Thursday post practice press briefing, Vitt said, when asked about the Panthers' offensive line, "they're doing a good job protecting the quarterback." But coach, Newton is running out of the protection of the pocket to save his life. Remember my "three-second rule" of get ride of the ball or get hurt.

Over at Saints World, fullback Jed Collins, running back Pierre Thomas and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks all did not practice Wednesday with knee injury listings, along with Jabari Greer and his concussion suffered in last Sunday's game.

By Thursday, Thomas, Hicks, and Green were still held out of practice, while Chris Ivory, Jed Collins, and Jimmy Graham were at full practice status.

Over in Carolina, Geoff Hangartner, and running back Jonathan Stewart (ankle) were held out of Thursday's practice. Seven of the eight so-called rested Panther players were back, listed as full practice status.

If the Saints, with the home-field advantage, do not prevail against a demoralized (just look at Riviera, whose job is on the line) Panther team ready to start the offseason, then we truly need to rethink the meaning of team pride.

As I said from the start - "Turn out the Lights, the Party is Over" - until next season.