The one thing that has jumped out to me so far in this Saints offseason has been the number of serious injuries. Even before training camp opened, the team lost prized free agent linebacker Victor Butler for the season.
Then two weeks into camp they lost rising receiver Joe Morgan and another potential starter, defensive lineman Kenyon Coleman. Last week came the news that defensive captain Jonathan Vilma has been sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury. Thankfully, Vilma’s injury will be arthroscopically treated and is not expected to keep him out much longer than the preseason. But the team can’t suffer many more losses to contributors and expect to climb back into the hunt.
My old boss Jim Finks used to say that injuries are the worst thing in sports. They are not predictable. They come without notice or warning. They can come in various ways, during a collision on the field, an accident in the weight room or a freak injury such as an Achilles tear stepping off the curb. They can absolutely turn optimism into disaster.
A few weeks ago, I said the Saints should be three games better than last season. I based that on the return of Sean Payton to the sidelines, a distraction-free Drew Brees not worrying about his contract and a defensive makeover after last season’s debacle. The unspoken asterisk to that optimism was “if they are not wracked by injuries.” Although no other team has placed three potential starters on IR for the season, other teams have been affected by a rash of injuries during the preseason. Such prominent players as Plaxico Burress of the Steelers already have been lost for the year.
That’s why you hear so much about depth being a critical element of success. Acquiring players who can step right into an injury-induced vacancy is a yardstick of a good personnel department. You acquire backups hoping they will not have to play, while knowing that many of them probably will.
I’ve told the story on these pages about those thrilling days of yesteryear when I covered the Baltimore Colts. During their three straight division championships, they were satisfied to have guys like Bill Troup or Mike Kirkland backing up Pro Bowler Bert Jones. Troup and Kirkland were good guys, solid teammates in the locker room and contributed in the meeting room. They just weren’t very good players. That reality hit the Colts when Jones went down in the final preseason game of the 1978 season. At that point, the Colts went from a playoff team and a legitimate contender to a team that loaded up the Mayflower vans and fled to Indianapolis after Jones’ decline.
Losing a key player or a slew of them can ruin a season, but the specter of injury currently looms over the NFL and its future. Just wait until the thousands of individual law suits from former players is certified as a class action suit. Former players are claiming the NFL did not do enough to warn them about the long-term dangers of constant pounding on the body, particularly those that produced concussions. As we know from other class action suits, and even John Grisham novels, a class action suit in a favorable court room can have a seismic effect.
At that time, we might learn just how bad injuries can be in the NFL.
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