Monday, October 8, 2007

Nalen's injury hurts

Since Mike Shanahan took over as Denver Broncos coach in 1995, either Tom Nalen or Ben Hamilton have started 196 of 197 regular-season games. Nalen and Hamilton, who started nine games at center in 2002 when Nalen was hurt, are both done for the rest of the season, which will affect the entire Broncos offense. Nalen has a torn biceps muscle, and Hamilton is on injured reserve with post-concussion symptoms.

The center position is one of the most important on offense. The center calls out the signals for the rest of the line, something Nalen could do easily after 194 career games. Of the three linemen in the organization who have some experience at center, none of them have played a down at the position in the NFL. Chris Myers is the likely replacement, and the last time he played center was in college. Even then, he split time between center, guard and tackle. Greg Eslinger and Mark Fenton were good college centers, but it’s asking a lot to promote them from the practice squad to the starting lineup. Denver could sign someone, but the available crop is thin five games into the season. And a veteran without knowledge of the Broncos’ zone blocking scheme would need some time to learn.

The change will affect everyone. Shanahan said whoever replaces Nalen will have to spend extra time with quarterback Jay Cutler. Last year, Cutler and Nalen hadn’t worked much together before Jake Plummer was benched, and there were numerous quarterback-center exchange problems in Cutler’s first few games. That could be an issue in the Broncos’ next few games as Cutler gets used to a new center.

And the Broncos’ running game will be affected. Nalen coordinated the calls and executed them well, and Shanahan called him the greatest center to play the game. Nalen doesn’t talk much to the media and hasn’t gotten a lot of attention because he’s a lineman, but his absence will have a huge impact on the rest of the Broncos’ season.

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