The Buffalo Bills suffered a severe blow to their defense Tuesday as star linebacker Chris Spielman was declared out for the season.
Coach Marv Levy did not hide his disappointment in announcing that a herniated disk in the neck has sidelined the Bills' leading tackler and one of the team's most experienced and intense competitors.
"He's a great, great player and a great individual, and he's tremendously meaningful to our team," Levy said.
"Chris is a great leader," Levy said. "I'm sorry to hark back so many years, but I was in the Army Air Corps and there was a song, 'There's one motor gone, we'll still carry on.' Well, we've got a motor gone, we'll carry on, and come in on that wing and a prayer."
Third-year veteran John Holecek is expected to make his first NFL start in Spielman's place Sunday when the Bills play host to the Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium. The Bills also re-signed veteran free agent Mark Maddox to back up Holecek.
The injury to Spielman, 32, is a serious one. A disk is a flat, rounded plate between each vertebra of the spine that functions as a cushion or shock absorber for the spinal column. When a disk gets herniated, or ruptured, it typically bulges and extends into the spinal canal, pressing on the nerve roots.
It's possible Spielman may need some type of surgery to fuse the vertebrae, and the injury could be career-threatening. However, Levy said it is too early to be certain of either of those possibilities.
"I don't know 100 percent," Levy said of surgery. "That's an option the doctors are examining."
Asked about Spielman's chances of playing again, Levy said, "We really haven't addressed that. I know that Chris told me, 'I'll be there next year.' But I don't really know."
Spielman had undergone tests both Monday and Tuesday. He declined to comment on his status early Tuesday afternoon at the stadium.
Levy said the news, not surprisingly, was a blow to Spielman.
"One of the trainers came to get me and told me the doctor wanted to see me," Levy said. "As I walked through the training room, Chris came up to me and I could see tears in his eyes, and he said, 'I'm done for the year.' So I heard it from him first."
Spielman has missed just four games in his 10-year NFL career. He has played through numerous painful injuries, such as a torn pectoral muscle and a torn biceps muscle.
Stories of his dedication to the game are almost legendary. He's typically the first player at the stadium in the morning. He is among the last to leave the field each day in training camp. A couple of weeks ago he showed up 20 minutes early for a special teams meeting, even though he's not a starting member of the unit. He's the fourth-string fullback on the punt-coverage team.
"He was heartbroken, but he understands," Levy said. "It's not a shoulder or an ankle. It could turn into something serious if it's not treated correctly."
Spielman played all of Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos and made 10 tackles.
"After the game he came in and reported that a couple times over the past week or two he's experienced some numbness that sort of went through his body," Levy said. "He voiced concern over it. It's the first time to my knowledge he voiced such concern. They took X-rays and determined there was a herniated disk."
Spielman set a team record for tackles last season with 206 and was a first alternate to the Pro Bowl. He and linebacker Damien Covington share the team lead this season with 97.
Spielman joined the Bills as a free agent in 1996, signing a four-year contract worth a total of $8 million. He is earning $1.5 million this year.
Holecek has been Spielman's backup all season. He sat out the Denver game with a sprained ankle. But Levy said he was encouraged Holecek will be ready for Sunday.
Holecek has seen almost no action with the regular defense in his three seasons with the Bills. He has played on special teams and in short-yardage situations this season.
Maddox should need very little time adjusting to the Bills' defense, since he started 41 games for the team over the previous five seasons. Maddox, 29, lost his starting job to Covington in the second-last game of last year's regular season.
The Bills waived Maddox in June and re-signed him a month later, in time for training camp. However, he was among the first cuts at camp, being waived after the third preseason game. Maddox still lives in the Buffalo area.
Levy said if Holecek is unable to play, Maddox would start.
"Mark has been in town, he's in good shape," Levy said. "We're fortunate he's there and we can add him to the team."