With a quarter of the season remaining, NFL teams are struggling to replenish their ever disintegrating rosters. The Denver Broncos are missing eight starting players. The Minnesota Vikings are minus their top four safeties.
The Green Bay Packers played the fourth quarter last Thursday with backups at all except one offensive-line position.
The Kansas City Chiefs are without their best offensive player, Jamaal Charles, and their best defender, Justin Houston. Charles had season-ending knee surgery, and Houston is hoping to avoid the same fate, as he rehabs a sprained knee after missing a start last Sunday in Oakland.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their star running back, LeVeon Bell, to season-ending injury reserve, along with their Pro Bowl center, Maurkice Pouncey, and their left tackle, Kelvin Beachum.
The defending world champion New England Patriots were 10-0 even with an entirely replacement offensive line.
But then they started losing their elite group of pass catchers: Dion Lewis, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and – most impactful of all – superhero tight end Rob Gronkowski. So they’ve lost two consecutive games.
Tom Brady may be an MVP quarterback, but he won’t look like one if he’s throwing to Keshawn Martin and Demaris Johnson or any other discards of the Houston Texans.
But however impaired the aforementioned Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, Broncos, Packers, Chiefs and Vikings, these are the fortunate teams, expected to be in the playoffs.
As you would expect, the carnage tends to be worse for the also-rans, like San Diego, Baltimore, Dallas, San Francisco. The 49ers lost their top three running backs. The Chargers’ O-line is held together by Band-Aids. Literally.
The Ravens lost their quarterback, Joe Flacco, and are reduced to finishing the season with pick-6 specialist Matt Schaub.
And not since the season opener have my childhood heroes, the Cowboys, had Tony Romo and Dez Bryant healthy at the same time. They might have had Romo healthy now if he had not been rushed back from a broken collarbone by Jerry Jones, owner and chief of medicine at Valley Ranch.
So now Romo has Broken Collarbone II and Jones says it was worth the risk to set up a playoff run. I hope he’s enjoying every minute of Matt Cassel’s quarterbacking. Honestly, how many high school kids have you seen who can throw farther than Matt Cassel?
In the end, the Super Bowl winner may not be the team with the most talent, but the one with the most depth.
The teams battling for the top with the undefeated and relatively healthy Carolina Panthers are resilient and resourceful. They plug holes with undrafted yet talented rookies (Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, Denver’s Shaquil Barrett, New England’s David Andrews), or rejuvenated veterans such as Pittsburgh’s 32-year-old DeAngelo Williams running and catching very much like Bell.
One of the feelgood stories of the year is the 27-year-old ex-Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, standing in capably, at 6-9, for Beachum after serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan.
There does seem to be an endless supply of football talent in America, if you know how to find it. But of course there’s no end to the casualties.
In this holiday season NFL players are receiving more Get Well cards than any other kind.
Granted, football has always been a dangerous game and that’s why we love it. Teddy Roosevelt, macho as he was, almost put an end to it when he was president because he thought it too dangerous. This was a man who sailed down the Amazon on a raft after he’d been president.
Roosevelt demanded the forward pass to make the game safer. Of course, it’s never been safe. Still, football seemed less harmful in the 1970s. As Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach has noted, “We didn’t have near as many injuries.”
In the 1980s the expansion of artificial turf was blamed for rising numbers of injuries. Since then natural grass has regained much of its ground. The injury rate still rises.
No doubt the main factor is that the colliding masses are inexorably larger and faster. NFL Physics 101.
Staubach was rarely tackled by a 300-pound man. The Minnesota Vikings had two future Hall of Famers on their defensive line, and both Jim Marshall and Alan Page weighed less than 245. They would have to be linebackers if they were playing today.
The current NFL, prodded by public sentiment and expensive litigation, encourages safety measures: ever improving padding and helmets, reducing contact drills. Someday there may be a helmet that cushions the brain well enough to deter concussion, which is the most serious threat to the sport’s future, no matter how adroitly the NFL spins its injury reports to lessen our fears.
Consider the experience of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger near the end of the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 39-30 loss in Seattle. He butted helmets with 270-pound defensive end Michael Bennett and knew it was no ordinary “dinger.” He later described a “migraine-type headache” and his vision being “like looking through water.”
Wisely – for himself and for young lads who might look to him as a role model, Big Ben took himself out of the game. The next day the Steelers in their press release listed Roethlisberger not as having a concussion or a brain injury but “a traumatic ocular migraine.”
That doesn’t sound to me like a day at the beach, but just about anything sounds better to the NFL than concussion. Only one thing sounds worse to them. Detroit Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis pointed out that the league prefers “concussion” to “what it really is – brain injury.”
The NFL coaches will routinely say, “He’s got a hip injury,” or “he’s got an ankle.” But they will not mention brain injury by its name.
Whatever it’s called, I’m guessing it weighs heavily on the brain of Commissioner Goodell. He’s reminded of his most relentless crisis whenever his television airs previews of the movie in which he unwittingly stars: Concussion.
To be released on Christmas Day. Ho, ho, ho.