White, who had never missed a game in his first eight NFL seasons, tried to fight through the ankle injury in the season's first month, essentially serving as a decoy in the Atlanta Falcons' passing attack. The hamstring strain ended that experiment, and he sat out the Falcons' next three games. This past Sunday he returned in a 33-10 loss to Seattle and played roughly 55 offensive snaps, though he recorded just one catch for 20 yards. Incredibly productive and consistent, White had no fewer than 83 catches, 1,153 yards or six touchdowns in any season from 2007 to 2012. He won't approach those numbers in 2013.
The Falcons' 2013 season has, in turn, been defined by the injuries to White and a long list of his teammates, including wide receiver Julio Jones (out for the season), running back Steven Jackson (47 total carries), fullback Bradie Ewing (out for the season), left tackle Sam Baker (out for the season), linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (just back this week from injured reserve/designated for return) and defensive end Kroy Biermann. One of the most consistently successful teams in the NFL over the last half-decade, Atlanta average 11 wins per season from 2008-12 and trailed only New England (60 to 56) in total wins in that span. They won't approach that total in 2013.
You won't hear White or the Falcons complaining, however. Every NFL team deals with injuries, and none of them expect sympathy from their opponents.
"Obviously we want to be throwing to our number-one receivers, but that’s not always the case in the NFL," said Head Coach Mike Smith, who has presided over the longest stretch of success in Falcons history. "You cannot let injuries be an excuse. Everybody is going to face different challenges when it comes to injuries and I think it’s very difficult to quantify what team has the most injuries or which team has the most [affected]."
“It’s been tough," said White of Ryan's efforts with a depleted cast around him. "Any time you lose guys that you’re used to throwing the ball to week-in and week-out and you know where those guys are going to be and then you get new guys out there and you’ve got to kind of get those guys the ball, you don’t really know what’s going on and how they’re going to do things, how they’re going to run routes, stuff like that. It’s different. It’s different packages and stuff, it’s different play calls and things we’ve got to make up to get people open and things like that. It’s tough on the quarterback when you have to do that and carry on a lot more responsibility. He’s working through it. It’s a process. Injuries happen in the NFL and you’ve just got to go out there with the guys you’ve got and try to be as productive as you can.”
If White is not just back on the field in a decoy role but truly close to his usual form, Ryan will have a much better chance to put up the kind of numbers he did in Games One through Six (13 touchdowns, three interceptions).
And White is indeed back, despite last week's low production.
“I feel pretty good," he said. "Last week, I saw my first action in a long time, went out there – it felt good to be back out there again. This week, things will be better. I’ll get an opportunity to get out there and run around and do some good things out there.”
Unfortunately for White, that improved health could be a double-edged sword. Also rounding back into his usual form is Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis, who has recently been playing more man-to-man coverage and has taken such top targets as Seattle's Golden Tate and Miami's Mike Wallace out of their team's offensive plans. He has, in essence, re-established Revis Island. If the Buccaneers decide that it's White – and not Harry Douglas, who caught seven passes for 149 yards against Tampa Bay in Week Seven – who is the Falcons' top threat in the passing game, there's a good chance they'll try to put White on the island.
The only other time Revis and White played against each other was in 2009, when White was held to four catches for 33 yards in a 10-7 Atlanta win against Revis' Jets in the Meadowland. But White has obviously seen Revis in action over the years, and he thinks the current version is just as much of a problem.
“He looks really good," said White. "He looks like old Revis. He does a lot of good things. It’s hard to get him on anything. You’ve just got to go out there and be technically sound when you play against him and do everything right. You’ve got to be physical with him because he’s a physical guy and use your hands against him. He’s playing real well and he’s doing a lot of good things out there.
“He just does everything good. Usually, you find loopholes and weaknesses in guys’ games and things that they don’t do right and things that they can’t do. He’s just a smooth guy, a smooth athlete in every aspect of the position that he plays. He’s smart, he watches film and things like that, so he kind of knows what’s coming and things like that. You can’t really trick him.”
As such, White may find that he plays his position very well and still ends up with a shallow stat line once again on Sunday. In recent weeks, the top performers for Buccaneer opponents have been second or third receivers, such as Carolina's Ted Ginn Jr., Seattle's Doug Baldwin and Miami's Rishard Matthews. Before that was Douglas' star turn in Atlanta, which helped the Falcons come back for a 31-23 win, their only victory in their last seven games. If White's presence does end up shifting Ryan's attention in Douglas' direction again, that's fine with the veteran receiver, who has been impressed with how well his teammate has stepped up in the wake of all the injuries this year.
“He’s doing an excellent job this year just coming in, stepping in and making plays for us all year," said White of Douglas. "That’s what we expect him to do week-in and week-out. He’s done a heck of a job of just moving right on it and catching the ball and going out there and making plays. We’re going to need him to make plays for the rest of the year in order for us to get wins.”
The Falcons won't hit 11 wins this year, and they would have to run the table just to finish above .500. After coming within minutes of making it to the Super Bowl in 2012, Atlanta obviously had very high expectations for the 2013 campaign, and they almost certainly won't be met. Whether they want to use it as an excuse or not, a tough run of injuries is one reason for the Falcons' surprising struggles this year. However, one of their most important players is now back in the mix and – even if he has to deal with Revis Island this week – that should improve the Falcons' chances on any given Sunday.
"Any time you’re not doing what you’re expected to do, it’s a tough situation to be in," said White. "But every week, we’re just trying to get better and trying to find ways to win games. It’s going to happen in the NFL where you have injuries and things like that, but you’ve got to move past those things and you’ve got to go with the guys you’ve got and go out there and try to win games. That’s what we’ve been doing week to week and just trying to get better in every aspect that we play, from the O-Line, the wide receivers, to the quarterback position. We’re just going out there and trying to get better every week.”