Tom Brady already was in a bit of a sour mood after last Sunday’s closer-than-expected win over the Jets, when he was asked for his reaction to Aaron Rodgers suffering a broken clavicle and possibly being done for the season.
“I didn’t know that,” Brady said. “Yeah, that sucks.”
Vikings, Lions, and Bears fans probably aren’t shedding too many tears for Rodgers and Packers fans, but for fans of the NFL in general, Rodgers’s injury is a real bummer. The league’s most physically talented quarterback, at his peak at 33 years old, is now most likely gone for the year, completely altering the NFC playoff landscape and all but ruining the Packers’ season.
It has been a brutal couple of weeks of injuries for the NFL. In Week 5, J.J. Watt suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Odell Beckham a season-ending ankle injury. Three of the league’s best players and most marketable stars done for the year in a seven-day span, faster than you can say “Omaha.”
Injuries are a part of all sports and can strike at any time, as we saw this past week with the Celtics and Gordon Hayward. But no other professional sport struggles with injury and turnover like the NFL.
Imagine LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden all suffering season-ending injuries in the same season, let alone the same week. Or Major League Baseball holding its playoffs with Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, and Clayton Kershaw on the disabled list. Those seasons wouldn’t be considered legitimate by many fans, the champion crowned with an unofficial asterisk and a “yeah, but.”
But this happens every year in the NFL, and we shrug our shoulders and say, “Next man up.”
Writing about football players getting injured is like saying “water is wet.” The game is violent by nature, and injuries have always been woven into the game’s fabric.
But there is no question that NFL bodies have grown unnaturally big, strong, and fast, putting players at higher risk of injury. And it is remarkable how many of the league’s brightest players have already landed on injured reserve and are done for this season.
Julian Edelman. David Johnson. Brandon Marshall. Ryan Tannehill. Eric Berry. Dalvin Cook. Andrew Luck still hasn’t played a snap, and might not. And we’re only in Week 7.
The NFL is trying to put on a good face about the injuries.
“Losing stars like this for the season is tough on the players first, teammates and fans,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said. “But it also creates an opportunity for new stars to emerge. Deshaun Watson, Kareem Hunt, these are emerging stars we’ll be talking about for a long time.”
Of course, there’s no guaranteed those guys make it to January, either. Last year, it wasn’t promising young quarterback Derek Carr deciding the Raiders’ postseason fate. It was third-stringer Connor Cook, the only healthy QB on the Raiders’ roster, playing in the team’s most crucial game of the season after Carr broke his leg and his backup hurt his shoulder.
Predictably, Cook couldn’t rise to the occasion, and the Raiders’ promising 12-4 season came to a crashing halt in a first-round playoff loss to Houston.
Unlike the other sports, winning an NFL championship is less about creating the best team, and more about survival of the fittest.
Over the last few years, when the Patriots are healthy, they win. And when they’re hurt, they don’t. In 2016, when they won the Super Bowl, they placed just three players on injured reserve all season — Rob Gronkowski, backup linebacker Jonathan Freeny, and journeyman tight end Greg Scruggs. The NFL average was 14.
In 2015, when they lost the AFC Championship game, the Patriots placed 15 players on injured reserve, including starting left tackle Nate Solder, running back Dion Lewis, and fullback James Develin.
In 2014, the only key losses were Jerod Mayo and Aaron Dobson, and they won the Super Bowl.
In 2013, they lost Gronk, Mayo, Vince Wilfork, and Sebastian Vollmer, and lost in the AFC Championship game.
The same holds true for the other Super Bowl participants. The 2016 Falcons, 2015 Broncos and Panthers, and 2014 Seahawks all had fewer players on IR than the league average.
But not all IR players are created equally, either. Many are backups or practice squad players who don’t factor in significantly. A team can rarely withstand more than one or two injuries to key players in order to make it all the way to February. The teams listed above all survived the injury onslaught, and made it to the Super Bowl.
That’s why it’s important to embrace the NFL’s increased focus on player-safety rules, even if “they’re ruining the game,” as President Trump lamented last month. Important changes made in recent years include added “defenseless position” protection to players, eliminating more hits to the head, peel-back blocks, hits below the waist, and strengthening the concussion protocol and return-to-play rules.
For one, protecting the players and reducing the risk of injury is simply the right thing to do. But two, the NFL needs to make sure its best and brightest stars are actually healthy and playing come January.
It’s the only sport where playoff games are often determined by Connor Cook, and not by LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden. And as Brady so eloquently put it, “That sucks.”
PLAYING THE GOOD SOLDIER
Garoppolo still biding his time
It would be easy for Jimmy Garoppolo to be frustrated. The 2014 second-round pick is spending his fourth straight season on the bench behind Tom Brady. Garoppolo hasn’t even played a snap in the first six games, the first time he has gone this long without even a courtesy series or a kneeldown.
And now the guy who sat behind him on the depth chart has become a starter. Jacoby Brissett couldn’t cut it in New England, but he has started the last five games for the Colts.
I caught up with Garoppolo on Thursday and remarked that it must be killing him to spend another season on the bench while his friend and former teammate gets to start every week, including a big “Monday Night Football” platform last week.
“Not killing me,” Garoppolo said. “Just have to be patient. Things have a way of working out.”
We’ll see if Brady plays until 45 as he says he will, but Brady clearly has no intention of slowing down this season. He still hates coming out of games or giving up practice reps, and so far has played all 434 snaps through six games.
Garoppolo, set to be a free agent in March, said he’s not frustrated being stuck behind Brady for a fourth straight year and that his mind-set “is in a good place right now.”
“Last week, got some more reps than usual, which is always a good thing for me,” Garoppolo said. “This week, running the Atlanta offense. We’re in the grind mode right now. These are important games coming up and we’ve got an important one coming up on Sunday.”
Those extra reps came on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the Jets game, when Brady sat out practice with a left shoulder injury. Since the Patriots don’t have a practice squad quarterback, that left Garoppolo as the only QB, giving him all of the action with the first-team offense. His arm was sore last week, but in a good way.
For Garoppolo, those practices may well have been his Super Bowl.
“Real important,” he said. “They’re just a good opportunity to go out there, obviously [get] more reps. A couple of tough days, but those reps are invaluable. So when I get an opportunity like that, just got to make the most of it.”
Garoppolo had two good starts for the Patriots in 2016, and is primed to cash in this offseason, with the Patriots or as a free agent. For now, he’ll just make the most of his practice opportunities, and continue to cheer for Brissett.
“I try to watch him as much as possible, but those Monday night games are pretty late,” Garoppolo said. “Happy for Cobes that he got his opportunity right now and he’s taking advantage of it. I don’t now what the deal is with [Andrew] Luck or when he’s coming back, but hopefully good things keep happening.”
Some updates on three QBs
■ Jacoby Brissett is 2-3 as a starter this year, with mixed results. His two wins are 3-point victories at home over the Browns and 49ers. He threw an interception in overtime in a loss to the Cardinals, and got smoked by the Seahawks and Titans.
Brissett is throwing for only 201.5 yards per game, and he’s 29th in completion percentage (59.8).
Then again, he doesn’t have a great supporting cast, and he has shown he belongs in the NFL, possibly even as a starter. Indeed, the word out of Indianapolis is that the Colts love Brissett’s poise and demeanor, and he has exceeded every expectation, especially considering he joined the team just nine days before the season opener.
A source close to Brissett said the Colts’ offense suits his skill set better than in New England, where Brissett struggled with the anticipation and timing routes that are a staple of Josh McDaniels’s offense.
But Colts offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski runs the old Norv Turner offense that emphasizes deep balls and checkdowns, and Brissett is running it proficiently. The Colts are averaging 22 points per game under Brissett, which would be tied with Seattle for 15th in the NFL. Brissett is a respectable 13th in yards per pass attempt (7.4), and he has shown great athleticism and instincts with his 98 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
■ Brissett might not relinquish the starting job for a while, either. Andrew Luck, who practiced twice each of the last two weeks after offseason surgery to repair a torn posterior labrum in his throwing shoulder, suffered a big setback this past week. He was shut down and given a cortisone shot, which now resets his calendar to return, likely making him at least a month away. Our source said the Colts have considered the possibility that Luck won’t play at all this year.
But make no mistake, new Colts GM Chris Ballard would like to see Luck play. And not to salvage the season, or keep the fans happy. Ballard wants to know the condition of Luck’s throwing shoulder and whether it will affect Luck’s long-term prognosis as the Colts’ starter.
■ And in Minnesota, there are more questions swirling around Sam Bradford than Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford has reportedly been receiving Regenokine treatments for his knee, which suggest that the injury is worse than just a bone bruise. A league source said the Vikings have considered the possibility that Bradford, who has played in just two games this year, could also miss the rest of the season.
Bridgewater, meanwhile, continues a remarkable comeback from a devastating noncontact knee injury last August. Bridgewater returned to practice this past week and will be activated from the physically unable to perform list within the next few weeks. Bridgewater said Thursday that “I definitely believe I’ll play this year,” and that opportunity should come sooner rather than later.
The Vikings have talked about Bridgewater playing against the Browns next Sunday in London, but they have a bye the following week. So look for Bridgewater to start Week 10 at Washington, or, more likely, Week 11 at home against the Rams.
No lead is safe
For as much as the Falcons heard all offseason about blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, they haven’t gotten any better this season at defending leads. Their first-half scoring margin is 81-31, as they have allowed just 7 points in the first quarter, but it’s 40-72 in the second half. Last week, the Falcons led, 17-0, at halftime but lost, 20-17, to the Dolphins.
While they enter Sunday night’s rematch against the Patriots with a 3-2 record, they easily could have lost in Week 1 to Chicago (which failed in four shots at a winning touchdown from the 5-yard line in the final seconds) and would have lost to Detroit in Week 3 if not for a crazy finish that wiped a touchdown off the board and created a 10-second runoff.
Of course, the Patriots haven’t been much better in the second half. Their first-half scoring margin is 111-85, but it’s 61-74 in the second half, including 31-54 in the fourth quarter.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano has survived the hot seat in each of the last two seasons, but it’s looking like he might not be so lucky this time. A new GM typically wants to hire his own guy, and Ballard has made no secret how much he respects Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub, who has received interviews and some buzz in head coaching circles the last few years. Ballard also has been picking Brissett’s brain about McDaniels, who might see the Colts as an attractive job if Luck’s shoulder heals completely and he can return to the player he once was . . . Since the start of the 2016 season, only five teams have not lost a home game by 10 points or more — the Cowboys, Seahawks, Chiefs, Falcons, and, believe it or not, the Lions. The Patriots have done it twice (Chiefs in Week 1 this year, Bills in Week 4 last year). The Broncos, who have one of the best home-field advantages in the league, also have done it twice . . . Nice gesture by the NFL to give away 500 tickets to this year’s Super Bowl to various dedicated fans. They kicked off the initiative this past week by giving tickets to all the players and coaches on the Phelps Falcons, an eighth-grade team in the Minneapolis area . . . Last week’s games had 15 non-offensive touchdowns, the second-most ever in a single week (Week 15, 1998). There were eight interceptions, two kickoffs, two punts, two fumbles, and one blocked punt touchdown . . . Adrian Peterson needs one rushing touchdown Sunday against the Rams to become the ninth player in NFL history with 100 in his career. And he is just 38 yards shy of becoming the sixth player with 12,000 career rushing yards . . . Among the speakers at the Powering Precision Health Summit on Oct. 24-25 at the Charles River Hotel is Chris Borland, the former 49ers linebacker who walked away from the NFL because of his fears of brain injury. Former Patriots safety Tim Fox and prominent brain researchers Ann McKee and Robert Stern from Boston University will also be on the panels.