For all the non-football headlines the NFL has drawn — the latest centering on the vice president rather than the president — what happens on the field defines the pro game.
On Sunday, while eight road teams walked away victorious, it was the players who didn’t walk away at all who drew much of the attention.
J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr., to start with.
No sport, not even America’s most popular, can afford to have the focus on injuries to its biggest stars. With pro football already in a precarious position regarding player health and safety — some predict the issue of head trauma and its long-term effects will doom the game — seeing the league’s most dynamic defender and receiver go down hours apart is unsettling.
Add in Beckham’s Giants losing three other wideouts; Watt’s Texans seeing another key defensive player sidelined; Green Bay’s most clutch receiver and one of Baltimore’s leading scorers not finishing games.
At the end of New York’s fifth straight defeat to begin the season, there were three tight ends on the field. Beckham had a broken left ankle. Brandon Marshall and Sterling Sheppard already had sprained left ankles, and kick returner/receiver Dwayne Harris broke a foot.
“I realized that Dwayne went down, Shep went down, Brandon went down, Odell went down,” offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. “It’s crazy.”
Perhaps. What it needs to not be is commonplace. Giants fans already have lost faith and much of their interest because of a winless start. Pugh and his fellow blockers can’t protect Eli Manning very well, and now Manning has no idea who he will be throwing to next week at Denver, or beyond that.
Also threatened is the artistry of games — OK, there hasn’t been much of that for Big Blue this season. That artistry suffers, of course, when the best performers aren’t in action. Such absences as Julian Edelman’s in New England, Marcus Mariota’s in Tennessee, Derek Carr’s in Oakland and Greg Olsen’s in Carolina on offense are damaging. So is the sidelining of Kansas City’s Eric Berry, the Chargers’ Jason Verrett, Arizona’s Markus Golden and the Chiefs’ Tamba Hali on defense.
“It significantly altered the game,” Giants coach Ben McAdoo said specifically of the 27-22 loss to the previously winless Chargers. It’s true whenever there is an epidemic of injuries, whether in the Meadowlands or Miami, Dallas or Denver. “We had one receiver left at the end of the ballgame.
“The guys fought hard, the tight ends stepped up and went out and worked to execute the two-man offense. They don’t get a lot of reps with what they’re being asked to do, but they went out, they played fast and played hard.”
Still, expecting them to perform anywhere near the level of a Beckham, Marshall or Sheppard is folly.
Watching Kansas City move with such ease against a Houston defense minus Watt and Whitney Mercilus was, well, merciless on the Chiefs’ part. On the other hand, after seeing Watt leaving the stadium in an ambulance on the way to the hospital after breaking his left leg, what else would KC do but exploit a weakness?
When Mercilus went out with a chest injury, it exacerbated the problems for the Texans.
Then the Chiefs saw outstanding tight end Travis Kelce, pass-rushing linebacker Justin Houston and WR Chris Conley get hurt.
It all emphasized how fragile even the biggest and baddest, the swiftest and most skillful athletes can be.