A league already in deep trouble takes its hardest hit.
When age and injuries had caught up (as they say) with Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts went all in on a quarterback from Stanford who would be the future of the franchise. And for a while, it appears as though the Colts had made the right call. Andrew Luck was raw and sometimes tried to make plays with his legs when receivers were covered and, as a result, took hits when he probably shouldn’t have.
Eventually and, perhaps inevitably, Luck was injured. A shoulder. He has not yet started a game this season. The Colts are, as they say, “struggling without him” and there are fans who wonder when, if ever, he will play again and, if he does, will he ever be the player fans and Indianapolis management once thought he would be.
If he isn’t, he will not be the first. Injuries, as they say, are part of the game.
Increasingly, it seems, the biggest part.
Before last weekend, two of the NFL’s stars were done, by injury, for the year. Odell Beckham and J.J. Watt will be missed but not in the way that Andrew Luck already is and any other from the first rank of quarterbacks would be. A serious injury to Drew Brees would change everything for fans of the New Orleans Saints. Were Tom Brady to be knocked out for the year, the entire landscape of the NFL would be changed. The games would, of course, go on but… well, you don’t pay the full ticket price for opera tickets to listen to the understudy sing.
So Sunday, when Aaron Rodgers went down hard enough to break his collar bone, it was another bad day for the NFL. Also, of course, a bad day for Rodgers, who missed most of another season, also to a broken collarbone.
Bad luck, you might think. And, then, maybe it isn’t a matter of luck so much as of inevitability.
Injuries may, indeed, be just part of the game, but that part seems increasingly large and important. The Packers were a playoff contender before Rodgers was hurt. Without him… well, better luck next year, when he will be back and may be able to make it through the entire season without needing surgery.
Meanwhile, the game will go on. The television and advertising contracts demand it. J.J. Watt may not be able to play but the Texans will put a team on the field. Rodgers may be out, but the Packers will play out the schedule.
But, then, there may come a time when the attrition demands extreme measures. The game makes its demands.
Several years ago, the NFL players went on strike and replacement players took the field in their place. The games went on but they were an embarrassment.
It would make for an interesting thought experiment to search NFL rosters and see how many teams, if any, could put the same 22 players on the field for every game of an entire 16 game season. My own guess is … none. No team could make it through an entire season without losing starters to injury. Some of them season, or career, ending.
That is the nature of the game. The players are bigger and faster than ever. Measures that were meant to protect them from injuries are, paradoxically, making them vulnerable to other, possibly more serious hurts. Institute a rule against hits to the head and players hit low and you get injuries to the knee that require surgery. Design a helmet to protect the head and the players use it as a weapon.
Aaron Rodgers believed he had been unnecessarily roughed. The officials did not agree. No penalty was called on the play that ended his season — and probably the Packers’ playoff chances. The injury to Rodgers was, in that sense, not an extraordinary event. Just another play.
And so, fans of professional football have come to see injuries — some of them serious — as routine and depressingly so.
So at the very least, the fan would find it hard to follow the Colts when their fortunes are tied so tightly to Andrew Luck and, then, he cannot play because he is hurt. And without perhaps feeling a vague sense that the injuries are so much a part of the game he has become something like the fans who piled into the Coliseum to enjoy the spectacle of the gladiators hacking each other to pieces.
A bit over the top, perhaps. Too refined for football where you are told to “rub some dirt on it” and “shake it out.”
But if the players you want to watch can’t play… maybe the game isn’t worth it. For either of you.
Hard to imagine the fix that will take care of this problem.
Geoffrey Norman’s column on the NFL is running early each week this season.
Aaron Rodgers in 2014 (Mike Morbeck/Creative Commons)