By TOM JONES
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning will miss at least two months, and maybe longer, with neck problems. Even at 35, Manning might mean more to the Colts than any other player means to his team. Here are my picks for the five players in sports right now who mean the most to their teams.
Justin Verlander, pitcher, Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are on the verge of their first division crown, and just their second postseason appearance, since 1987 (they were a wildcard when they advanced to the 2006 World Series.) They are where they are this year mostly because of Verlander, who is a lock for the AL Cy Young and has a shot at MVP. Consider: Coming into the weekend, the Tigers had won 81 games. Verlander was the winning pitcher in 22 of them. Since May 24, the team is 19-2 in games started by Verlander, and one of those losses was by 1-0. The rest of the Tigers' starting pitchers have combined for only 41 victories.
Troy Polamalu, safety, Pittsburgh Steelers
Usually, the quarterback is a football team's most valuable player. But ask anyone who follows the Steelers closely and they'll tell you Polamalu has been Pittsburgh's most crucial player the past several years. Ben Roethlisberger is an excellent NFL quarterback, but the Steelers have survived just fine without Big Ben in the past, including a 3-1 record to start last season when Roethlisberger was suspended. But things don't go quite as well when Polamalu is out. The Steelers are 65-26 since 2004, Polamalu's first year as a starter, (a .714 winning percentage) with him in the lineup but only 12-9 (.571) without him. In addition, the Steelers force twice as many turnovers per game when Polamalu plays.
Sidney Crosby, center, Pittsburgh Penguins
Back on Jan. 5, the Penguins beat the Lightning in a game where Crosby is believed to have suffered his second concussion in five days — following his first severe one in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic game. After beating the Lightning, the Pens were 26-12-3 and first overall in the Eastern Conference. The team's captain missed the rest of the season, and the Penguins went 23-13-5 to finish fourth in the East. (The Pens also lost Evgeni Malkin for the season less than a month after losing Crosby.) In the first round of the playoffs against Tampa Bay, the Pens averaged two goals a game were shut out in Game 7. The Pens are Cup contenders with Sid the Kid and barely a playoff team without him.
Dirk Nowitzki, forward, Dallas Mavericks
Every NBA team would be in trouble without their best player. Think of the Lakers without Kobe Bryant, the Thunder without Kevin Durant or the Magic without Dwight Howard. But the Dallas Mavs are the NBA champs because of Nowitzki. During the regular season, he averaged 23 points per game, while the Mavs averaged 100.2. During the playoffs, when he hit every big shot needed, Nowitzki averaged 27.7 for a team that averaged 98.2. Last season, teams playing without their leading scorer won about 31 percent of the time. But when Nowitzki missed nine games around Christmas last season, the Mavs won only two.
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers
Most NFL teams rely heavily on their starting quarterbacks. (Though, remember, the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel replacing an injured Tom Brady in 2008.) But the dropoff between Rodgers and backup Matt Flynn is fairly significant. Rodgers is, arguably, the best signal-caller in football right now. Meantime, in two games last season filling in for the injured Rodgers, Flynn went 0-2, including a 7-3 loss to the Lions. He has a career QB rating of 73.2, compared to Rodgers' rating of 99.1. Maybe Flynn just needs more of a chance to play, but Packers fans are hoping that chance doesn't come anytime soon.
Check it out
Today's This Week in Rays Baseball (noon, 620-AM) looks back at the 2001 terrorist attacks and personal stories of Rays players and executives. Host Rich Herrera interviews local firefighters who went to ground zero in 2001, plus several Rays coaches, executives and broadcaster Todd Kalas about their Sept. 11 experiences.