Opinion: If Brees and Roethlisberger can’t stay healthy, good luck to the NFL
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The 2019 NFL season is just two weeks old, but you ought to check on your franchise quarterback. Knock on his door right now. Bring water, soup, ice, an MRI machine, maybe a few new offensive linemen. Hurry up and find him because, considering how this painful season has begun, trauma is in pursuit.
On Sunday, two durable Super Bowl winners and future Hall of Famers went down. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season after suffering what appeared to be a noncontact elbow injury. He needs elbow surgery, and for a 37-year-old who has entertained retirement, you have to wonder about his future both from a recovery and desire standpoint. In addition, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees banged his thumb against the hand of Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and reportedly needs surgery to repair a torn ligament. Brees, 40, could be out for at least six weeks, an aberrational development in a 19-year NFL career in which he had missed only one game because of injury.
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In Week 1, Jacksonville quarterback Nick Foles broke his collarbone, and he isn’t expected to return before mid-November. So in two weeks, three significant starting quarterbacks — all of whom sport championship rings — have gone down.
But it’s deeper than the random ailments of three veteran signal callers. Andrew Luck retired before the season began, announcing he was tired of the constant pain and rehabilitation. Expected to have the longevity of Brees and Roethlisberger, Luck quit before he turned 30. And two of the league’s most promising young quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz, have been pummeled in prime-time games and managed to play through the hits. Then there is Cam Newton, the former MVP coming off shoulder surgery and looking physically diminished at age 30.
Beyond the major instances of quarterback thwacking, there are many teams with questionable offensive line situations barely surviving from down to down against the league’s athletic and swift defensive linemen. Even New England, which has outscored its opponents 76-3 in its first two games, is working hard to mitigate injury issues on the offensive line and keep the seemingly imperishable Tom Brady upright.
There is concern everywhere, and while it’s important to caution against overvaluing anecdotal evidence and a small sample size, just a few quarterback injuries already have altered the regular season in a major way. Despite adjusting rules and going to extraordinary lengths to try to keep quarterbacks healthy, the NFL cannot guarantee such safety.
A year ago, we delighted in a season of offensive innovation and sterling quarterback play, one in which 17 players threw for at least 3,700 yards, and nine threw for at least 30 touchdowns. From the emergence of Patrick Mahomes to the resilience of Luck to the persistence of Brady, it was a fantastic year to witness quarterbacks of all ages and styles showcase their talent and diversify the game.
For all the amazing performances, the most essential “ability” — availability — played a critical role. Most of the game’s best quarterbacks stayed healthy. Of the 12 teams that qualified for the postseason, Philadelphia was the only squad that didn’t keep its preferred starter healthy the entire season. (Baltimore switched from Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson, but not because of injury.) Now, in mid-September, there are indications all over the league that quarterback injuries could put a damper on this season.
You should view this on two levels. On one hand, the injuries suffered by Brees and Roethlisberger could be considered freak situations. They could be isolated and not considered part of a possible trend. But their injuries, which occurred despite their sturdy reputations and immense efforts by their teams to keep them healthy, underscore that no one is ever really safe in football.
As NFL teams attempt to modernize their offenses, as they buy into creative systems and the need to allow athletic quarterbacks the freedom to change the game, an old worry is creeping into relevance: How do you keep them out of the training room?
It’s not as easy anymore as coaching a quarterback to be smart and learn to slide. It’s not as easy as limiting his designed runs. Spread offenses and other college-style systems force NFL coaches to reimagine traditional offensive-line protections, which is why so many franchises have been so resistant to change.
For a franchise, it’s a dangerous feeling, but on the other end of risk, there are big plays and points and energized fan bases. Can you really tell Russell Wilson, who somehow hasn’t missed a game in eight seasons, not to be Houdini? Do you really want Mahomes not to improvise and throw that 60-yard touchdown pass? Do you really think the Ravens, who are maximizing Jackson’s dual-threat brilliance, will force him to be vanilla?
There’s a fine line between responsible and reckless. There’s a fine line between ambitious and cautious. Personally, I think we’re moving closer to an era in which teams won’t be able to expect their franchise quarterback to provide 15 years of stability. Newton might not play that long; as much as he loves the game, he’s closer to following Luck into early retirement than rediscovering his MVP form. Watson, who already has torn the ACL in both knees, isn’t on pace to play until his late 30s. Wentz, who shows mesmerizing ability when healthy, has been unavailable for the Philadelphia Eagles’ past two playoff runs.
Of course, the Eagles still found reason to give Wentz a monster four-year, $128 contract extension in June, which featured $66 million fully guaranteed at signing. Going all-in on Wentz also meant saying goodbye to Foles, who was the ultimate insurance policy. It was the right move despite Wentz’s injury history, but it means the franchise hyperventilates every time their quarterback takes a big hit.
It’s too reactionary to suggest that such quarterback trepidation will become the NFL norm soon, but the position is changing. So is the acceptance of that change. It leaves the NFL teeming with intriguing possibilities and greater risk at quarterback. And that’s just the nature of football.
Oh, well. At least the current, durable legends will play forever without . . . never mind.
Enjoy these enduring quarterbacks as long as you can. Don’t take them for granted. Their longevity is far more delicate than you realize.
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