So much of the discussion around the NFL this week has been about toughness. The Martin-Incognito story gets more bizarre by the day, but hinges around the fact that the culture of the NFL values toughness, both mental and physical, in a way that is drastically different than what most of us experience.
That culture is at the heart of many of the problems in the NFL. Concussions leading to dramatic later problems—exemplified now by a star player in Tony Dorsett and backed with scientific evidence—were exacerbated by a culture that said "you had your bell rung, get back in there" and rewarded those who did.
If you think Tony Dorsett is scary, wait until we have the first active player who shows signs of Tau protein. It's going to happen before you know it.
Malcolm Gladwell compared the modern NFL to human dogfighting, where those that watched would need to come to terms with the idea that they were watching injuries and death. If the inhumanity and cultural dissociation continues behind the scenes, it will make it tougher for the fans to justify it.
The NFL is hardly alone. I watched an HBO fight last week where the loser was left disfigured just after the fight and is now in a coma after suffering a stroke. I long ago came to terms with watching boxing and MMA, largely due to my family's long term associations with the sport. However, boxing is a niche sport now as many elected to walk away from a sport with these kind of physical issues on top of judging and organizational corruption.
If the NFL isn't careful, it may not shrink that much, but right now, Roger Goodell is a cash machine. No one likes a cash machine that says all out. For now, let's look around the League...
INJURY: fractured collarbone
OUTLOOK: return not expected until at least December
People seem to think that Aaron Rodgers could play through a broken bone if he wanted to. "Could he play if this was the playoffs?" I was asked Thursday.
No. Absolutely not.
I just don't get why "fractured collarbone" is difficult to understand. Even on the low end with the three standard deviation exceptions that people can throw out for Marques Colston a few years back, the risk isn't the same. Aaron Rodgers is going to get sacked, or even just pushed and land on that left side. It might not be his throwing arm, but defenders don't ask which side you want smashed into the turf.
The Packers have only one turf game, in Dallas, after the Thanksgiving day game in Detroit. That helps some, but the cold field likely in Green Bay won't help. Even with the optimistic scenario of returning in four to six weeks, that puts him back with a couple games left in the season and in the heart of the fantasy playoffs. He would be a very risky start before six weeks, but we have to expect that the Packers will think long term and be very conservative with the franchise QB.
While Rodgers should have no long-term consequences from the injury and should have no trouble returning once the bone is healed, the Packers have to guard against this becoming a bigger short-term issue by returning him before there's very good stability. I'll stick with the general range of six to 10 weeks.
INJURY: strained groin
OUTLOOK: expected to play Week 10
I honestly have no idea how Jay Cutler is going to play. Maybe this is his answer to having his toughness questioned a couple years ago after a minor knee sprain took him out of a playoff game. Maybe he saw Josh McCown play well and was threatened. Maybe the groin strain he has was not as serious as everyone was led to believe.
If his groin strain was as significant as the reports and as significant as several sources told me, I just don't know how he can function. With a "torn" adductor, the ability to pull the leg back in to the body will be compromised. I'll wait while you figure out how he'll be able to drop back without that function. That leaves out whether he'll be able to move laterally, whether it will alter his throwing motion and whether he's at risk of further damage.
Danny Amendola is playing through a similar injury, but his patterns can be adjusted. The groin isn't significantly involved in running forward and we've seen Amendola struggle with cuts and starts this season after returning.
There's just no way to know how Cutler will play with this. There's an instinct to trust Marc Trestman, who has McCown available if he is worried about Cutler's ability. On the other hand, I simply can't trust Cutler to go out and have a normal game. If you have an equivalent option at QB in Week 10, I'd watch and wait on Cutler.
INJURY: strained hamstring and back
OUTLOOK: unclear for Week 10
Arian Foster's injuries have traveled up and down his leg this season. Calf? Sure. Back? Yep. Hamstring? Of course. The strains are likely interrelated and with Foster out to see back specialists, the likeliest culprit for the fundamental problem lie at his back. (Who he saw remains a bit of a mystery, though rumors indicate he may have seen Dallas-area specialist Dr. Drew Dossett.)
Several doctors and therapists I spoke with indicated that they thought the problem is with the SI joint, which is near the attachment point for the hamstrings, as well as a key point of articulation. While the symptoms also match up with a disc problem in the lower back, those are easier to diagnose, making it unlikely to be a "hidden" issue.
The Texans are trying to treat the problem and not the symptoms, but that can take longer. It works better in the long term, but in the meantime, it looks unlikely that Foster will play in Week 10. Even if he pops up on Sunday morning and can go, he'll split carries with Ben Tate and Donald Johnson.
INJURY: strained hamstring
OUTLOOK: unlikely to play in Week 10
Darren McFadden's hamstrings must just be a bundle of scar at this point. Over and over, the strains have taken him out of games, and with his latest strain, the Raiders have to balance a lot of things before bringing him back, but they don't have to think as long term with him. In fact, there might be no long term.
McFadden is a free agent after the season, and while clearly talented, his inability to stay on the field has to make the Raiders wonder if he'll be worth the risk in re-signing him. (There's obviously a price where it works.) With Terrelle Pryor looking like the first longer-term QB in a while for the franchise, they can work on pairing him with other talented players.
Rashad Jennings looked pretty solid last week, reminding so many of the wasted handcuffs on him in Jacksonville. The system should work again this week, but for McFadden, unless the strain heals up quickly and gets him back in the mix, the team may need to stay with Jennings to see what they have there and consider what's coming in the draft. (Oddly, one option may be to sign Maurice Jones-Drew this offseason.)
If McFadden isn't back at practice on Friday, Jennings is a decent pickup and is under-owned right now. McFadden isn't a drop yet, but in some leagues, you may have to consider it.
INJURY: post-surgical hip
OUTLOOK: out for Week 10
While some thought Percy Harvin would be back last week, I'm telling you he may not be back even next week. Harvin is making progress and practicing pain-free, but the Seahawks are working on the long play here. It appears that the team would give up a couple weeks of Harvin in Week 10 or 11 in order to make sure he's ready for Weeks 12 and beyond. The team hopes "beyond" includes a deep run into the playoffs.
Harvin is doing well with what he's doing, but the Seahawks conservative pace isn't showing anything new just yet. Harvin is not making hard cuts, and the routes he's running are soft. He's fast, but he's not shifty, and track stars don't often succeed in the NFL. Getting Harvin back to full go is going to necessitate a bit more patience and a lot more work on those moves.
Until we see Harvin making those sharp cuts and hard stops, the Seahawks will cruise along with Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, who have been solid even with Sidney Rice out. Russell Wilson's mobility combined with a healthy Harvin could be crazy.
INJURY: bruised knee
OUTLOOK: unclear for Week 10
Marques Colston was a surprise inactive last week. He's starting this week in much the same situation, as a limited participant in practice having issues with the knee bruise. What's that tell us? Not much. Expect him to be a game time decision again this week.
The key is the diagnosis of a knee bruise. This seems to be internal bruising, though the Saints won't confirm this information. That indicates a problem with the meniscus or cartilage and given Colston's various injuries throughout his career, a degenerative problem shouldn't be that big a surprise.
The question now is maintenance of the leg. How does the medical staff keep the bruise from being exacerbated with every step. With the next four games on turf and only one remaining grass game, Colston's knee is going to be tested, as is the Saints medical staff. With other options in the passing game, Colston could see a very conservative path to return.
OUTLOOK: expected to play Week 10
The NFL's concussion policy wasn't what they'd advertised. The idea that they were following the Zurich protocol, a one-a-day, five-step return to play heuristic, was shattered by investigative work from Dr. Jene Bramel of Football Guys. The most extreme example of this yet is the return of Darren Sproles, who was cleared on Wednesday (per NOLA.com), just three days after a concussion took him out of the game.
Let me be clear: The Zurich protocols are just a framework. Sproles was treated properly and we have to assume that the doctors and neurologists who cleared Sproles are treating him properly, as well. The NFL's shortcomings shouldn't be foisted on the Saints or on Sproles. He's cleared and that's good.
Sproles should be able to come back normally. One of the key points of concussion management is that if treated properly, most players come back in the short term. There's something to be said that the Saints kept Sproles out after what we can now see is a minor concussion, but in the moment, there's no way for them to have known that.
Expect Sproles to be back in his normal role. Pierre Thomas took over his targets in the passing game last week and showed that he could, but Sproles adds a different dimension to the passing game with his quickness.
Michael Vick: Vick is making progress, doing drills in practice and some more running. He won't get the start after Nick Foles lit up the Raiders at an historic level. Vick could be back to challenge Foles as soon as next week, so Chip Kelly's going to have some tough decisions in the near term.
EJ Manuel: Manuel has looked solid in practice with no setbacks after returning. The LCL appears to have healed up, and while it's not clear if Manuel will wear a brace in the game, his return certainly will improve things for everyone on the Bills offense. I'm not expecting Manuel to have a big game, but he'll open up things for C.J. Spiller and give the WRs some better looks. He's not the worst stream QB if you're sitting Tom Brady this week on bye.
Doug Martin: Martin won't go this week and its beginning to look like the Bucs might shut things down and get the shoulder fixed sooner rather than later. The team wanted to see whether the shoulder could get stable enough to play without further damage, holding surgery until the offseason. There hasn't been a setback and Martin is still pushing to play, but at some point, the long term has to be considered for this team. It was a good thought, but expect a decision early next week.
David Wilson: Wilson was placed on season-ending IR by the Giants. His neck was not making enough progress and doctors did not foresee him being cleared to play in the next couple weeks. Next season remains a question, as well, which opens the door for...
Andre Brown: Brown will play in Week 10, but he's not all the way back. Brown will be wearing a special pad (some have described it as a plate, but I'm not sure of the material yet) over his twice-broken fibula. With other options like Peyton Hillis, expect Brown to be eased in this week.
Roddy White: White is practicing more and wants to play on Sunday, but that will be a GTD. The good news is that the ankle appears healthy, given the extra time the hamstring strain cost him. He's not likely to get his full snap count if he plays, but he's going to help Matt Ryan with confidence, if nothing else.
Kyle Rudolph: Rudolph will miss a month with a broken foot. The location isn't known, but the mechanism and the period they expect him to miss indicates a simple fracture on the longer, stronger bones. If it does turn out to be the fifth metatarsal, a month would be an aggressive timeframe, but something more medial would be reasonable.