This is the time of year when players are really hurting, rookies are hitting the wall (only used to 11-12 games), and vets are getting tired. It’s also crunch time for players and coaches to save their jobs and salvage a season (i.e. Tampa Bay Bucs).
Pressure runs downhill: Going into week 12, there are 23 teams within one win of staying in playoff contention. NFL coaches live in the Now, and they rarely look beyond the upcoming game. Each and every week may be the turning point game for those teams that are struggling. As the pressure mounts for coaches to win, the vice will tighten on the players as well. As a consequence of that vice squeezing, the coaches and even front office people may ask more from their players. As for the players, they are usually faced with the conundrum of risking more injury to their bodies for a career, or playing through the rest of the season for their coaches.
My 27 years of experience and the fluid conversations I have with my players, trainers, and GMs, leads me to believe that up to a quarter of all NFL active players are playing with an injury serious enough that they shouldn’t be playing at all. However, the pressure they receive from coaches and execs combined with the fear of losing their job, is enough to keep them on the field. These guys are running on toradol, PRP shots, cortisone, pride and even getting their knee(s) drained weekly. According to Dr. David Chao who spent 17 years as a NFL team physician, “A player who is 80 percent healthy is considered as having a good week. Just about everyone has something they are dealing with by week 12”.
Over the next few weeks, we will get a good idea of which teams will go to the playoffs. As a player, when your team is headed in the wrong direction, you may take the opportunity to shut it down and nurse your injury or you may decide to keep playing through. In most cases when a player keeps playing they make an injury worse and push back rehab until after the season and as a result are usually not ready for camp. Additionally, the player’s performance drops off because of the injury.
The majority of players don’t have guaranteed contracts so there is a cloud of insecurity that constantly hangs over their heads. Thus, the pressure to keep playing in fear of being cut wins out 99% of the time. So they play. Only the superstars have the leverage to shut it down early.
Last season I had three players in this same situation and will have a few more this year. One client was told by his assistant special teams coach, “you need to stop being a p**sy, take some pain pills and keep playing”. The client had to have a serious operation after the season to fix the problem. Then the doctor said he made it worse by playing on it. He participated very little in the offseason and was released this preseason.
Same story for another starting client I have. He sustained a significant injury in the first few weeks last season that two doctors told us would definitely require surgery. I advised the client to shut it down, get the surgery so he can start the long rehab process and be ready for next (2013) season. When I voiced my opinion to the head trainer, the head coach, and the position coach they begged him to keep playing the remaining games. There was no way this team was going to make the playoffs. The client (a very tough guy) kept playing and also had to get a serious operation to correct the issue. The rehab process was much longer than we were initially told and the client missed most of camp this year. This is where an experienced and dedicated trainer can make or break a player's season and in turn impact a team's success.
So, like so many players who get caught in this cycle, they are always playing catch-up. Their bodies never really get primed for the following season if they pushed too far the season before. To add insult to injury, execs, coaches and owners forget the sacrifice the player makes or has made. There are no credits or financial rewards for playing while injured. It’s expected and usually shortens a player’s career. As I have written several times, there needs to be an overhaul of the injured reserve rules so players can take the proper steps in healing their bodies.
When an agent senses his client is risking further injury and/or potentially shortening his career, it’s our job to contact the team and request to have the player’s status re-evaluated and even go right to IR. However, there is tight rope being walked here because the player doesn't want to appear as if he hiding behind his agent. Additionally, some old school execs and/or coaches may see it as the agent meddling in football decisions. Neither is good for the player.
Economically, for a team to shut down several of their players so they can get an early jump on surgery and rehab, they would have to continue to pay them and pay the new players they bring in. A non-playoff team doesn’t like to spend money in a losing season. If you ever wonder why a player wasn’t as productive as the season or two before it’s most likely because he’s nursing an injury that needs fixing right away.
The “damned if you do and if you don’t” scenario can be a killer for a player’s career. If he finishes the last game he will most likely be “passed” on his exit physical. This will limit his ability to collect certain injury benefits he’s entitled to. If he goes on permanent IR during the season, some other teams will cross him off their potential free agent list (if he is in a free agent year). These are the quiet, underneath the surface daily stresses players face that the fans don’t see. If contracts (or a portion thereof) were guaranteed for all players, you would see many headed to the IR this week and in the next few weeks to come.
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