Solutions exist to the issues that arise when a team loses a key contributor in Week 17 because it doesn't have enough bodies to remove all of its key contributors from its lineup.
Here's one: Expand the rosters. Much like Major League Baseball does in September, the NFL could allow teams to dress 53 players rather than the 45 they're normally allotted. It could go farther and allow teams to dress their practice-squad players, too.
The reason the Patriots played Randy Moss and Wes Welker on Sunday was because they couldn't go 50 or 60 snaps with only Sam Aiken, Julian Edelman and Isaiah Stanback. On top of that, there was little reason to bench Moss and Welker without benching a number of other key contributors on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. An injury to left guard Logan Mankins or middle linebacker Jerod Mayo arguably is just as devastating as an injury to Moss or Welker.
In playing Welker, though, the Patriots exposed one of their most prolific playmakers to the possibility of getting hurt. The torn ligaments Welker suffered in Sunday's first quarter will sideline him for the playoffs, if not a significant chunk of next season, and the meaninglessness of the game only adds insult to the devastating injury.
Had the Patriots played with a roster expanded to its limit, they could have played practice-squad wide receiver Darnell Jenkins in place of Moss or Welker -- and they also could have used several other reserves in place of Aiken and Stanback on special teams so they could have played more snaps on offense.
Same goes elsewhere. Activating offensive linemen Rich Ohrnberger and Ryan Wendell would have given the Patriots the depth to get Mankins or banged-up right guard Stephen Neal out of the game in the second half. Activating linebackers Bruce Davis or Thomas Williams from the practice squad would have allowed them to keep Tully Banta-Cain and Jerod Mayo out of harm's way. Bringing practice-squad quarterback Jeff Howe on the trip with them would have allowed them to keep Brady on the sidelines -- if they so chose -- without worrying about what would happen if backup Brian Hoyer suffered an injury.
Expanded rosters, however, don't make for a very entertaining product on the field. Check out the lineup the Red Sox fielded against Toronto last September on the day after they clinched the wild card -- the "Hangover Special," some called it. Joey Gathright hit leadoff. Casey Kotchman hit third. Outfielder Rocco Baldelli finished the game at third base. Catcher Dusty Brown finished the game on the mound. Roy Halladay surrendered three hits in a watching-paint-dry 12-0 win for the Blue Jays.
Baseball can get away with clunkers like that because its teams play 162 games. Football can't really get away with clunkers like that -- like the Colts' fold-the-tents "effort" against the Jets a week ago -- because it only plays 16 games. When teams pull their starters in one of those 16 games, even with the most noble of intentions, eyebrows get raised around the NFL.
Fans at Houston's Reliant Stadium on Sunday paid $30 for the worst seats in the house and $132 for the best -- not to mention the ever-growing prices for parking and concessions in the stadium. If they did so on a single-game basis, they did so knowing they might get backups. If they did so as part of a season-ticket package -- the best way, it seems, of getting in the door on any kind of regular basis -- they had no choice, just the way they had no choice but to purchase tickets for the fourth game of the preseason, a game in which Tom Brady threw as many passes as the 68,756 poor souls in the stands.
It's easy to see, then, why Roger Goodell and the NFL want so badly for Week 17 to mean something, for teams to play their best players the way they would in a meaningful game.
On the one hand, lousy games breed bad publicity and mess with the sanctity of the playoff race.
On the other hand, if fans don't show up for Week 17 games because they're anticipating clunkers, the teams lose money. (This sham of a game five years ago comes to mind.) If fans don't tune into Week 17 games because they're anticipating clunkers, the teams lose money. Ticket sales aren't about to slow down anytime soon, but parking and concessions and memorabilia and advertising dollars depend on butts in seats and eyeballs on television sets.
If the Patriots lose to Baltimore or San Diego because they don't have Wes Welker running routes, well, the Patriots might lose money. The NFL will keep doing just fine.
That's the underlying issue here: Don't blame Bill Belichick for the injury to Wes Welker. Belichick doesn't have enough players on his roster to bench a perfectly healthy wide receiver when he's got to think about the perfectly healthy -- and less than perfectly healthy -- players at other positions. If Welker sits, why not Mayo? If Moss sits, why not Brandon Meriweather? If Dan Koppen and Matt Light sit, shouldn't Brady?
If the NFL wanted its best players healthy for the postseason, it would allow teams to activate its entire roster -- maybe even including its practice-squad players -- for Week 17 games. Much like the final week of preseason games, star players could take a day off and stand and watch as reserves play out the string.
Losing a star player like Welker -- especially in a sport in which star players can get injured in the playoffs, anyway -- doesn't affect the NFL's bottom line. Putting forth a feeble effort in Week 17 does affect the NFL's bottom line.
That's why the rules are set up the way they are.
That's why Belichick had little choice but to play Welker against Houston on Sunday -- at least in the first quarter, and that was enough playing time to get him hurt.
Don't blame Belichick.
Blame the money.