On Sunday night, Seahawks’ lineman Darrell Taylor went in for a tackle and ended up motionless on the field. It was a frightening moment in a sport filled with injuries. The very real threat of a concussion is ever-present in the NFL, along with less-likely injuries like paralysis or even death.
So it is also in hushed tones that broadcasters confront these moments, as the golf cart with a backboard is brought to the field, immobilizing a player until he can be taken to a local hospital. And that’s how NBC’s Cris Collinsworth and Mike Tirico treated Taylor’s injury between frequent cuts to commercial.
It is notable, in a sport where everything can be measured, quantified, analyzed, and contextualized, that there is little serious accounting for on-field injuries. Each one is treated like a one-off, an unexpected accident, while noting that “injuries are part of the game.”
And yet, in the world of fantasy sports and betting, it’s a pretty important part. NFL teams put out injury reports each week, but they’re vague enough that fantasy players and bettors are scouring practice reports for clues about who is working out on the sidelines or is limping to the locker room.
But this very real part of the game doesn’t get the same analytic treatment.
Take the pinned tweet from @CowboysStats. It’s a gorgeous graphic showing how much more likely teams are to run when it’s late in the game, and how that information tempers the credit individual running backs get for late carries. Scheme versus individual, in blue and navy dots on an axis.
So why aren’t injures treated like that? Most statistics come from the leagues or from broadcasters, which pour over film to determine how far a running back got after contact or a wide receiver after the catch.
The NFL actually posts a lot of this data itself, although not through the usual stats section of the website. It’s on a part of the NFL site called “Player Health and Safety,” as though it exists in a universe apart from the actual games. If you look you can find it, along with information on player care, mental health, and pain management. It looks very different from nfl.com’s landing page for stats.
The message is that this is a personal player issue.
And that’s true to a certain extent, but entering the NFL workplace means entering a world where your medical data isn’t so much private as it is part of a highlight package.
Injuries increased pretty dramatically in the covid-season of 2020, and some researchers suggested this was due to a lack of a preseason, after analyzing the data found on the NFL player health site. So if a group of surgeons and researchers can collate this data, why don’t we ever get it in an NFL broadcast?
Why don’t we hear numbers on, say, how many safeties sustain ACL tears each season? Or what is the average number of starting quarterbacks who make it to the end of the season? How many injuries that require the backboard are resolved by the next week?
Each injury is treated like a snowflake. Like it’s impossible to know how a player will respond to treatment. But there are averages that go along with them and NFL players get the kind of treatment that makes them seem resilient in a superhuman way. San Francisco cornerback Josh Norman suffered bruised lungs and spit up blood, heading to the hospital after a Week 3 game, but his poor performance against the Cardinals in Week 5 still got him listed in the “losers” column of a Niners Nation performance analysis.
We aren’t doing players like Norman any favors with thoughts-and-prayers coverage when the expectations don’t dim after an injury that would keep most of us from lifting boxes for 6 months.
Injuries are treated like a black hole in the NFL, and the reporting is always geared to the return, as though it’s a story of one player’s triumph over adversity. It would be easy enough to quantify. There is an injury report, so take the average number of weeks it takes an NFL player to return to play after a high ankle sprain, for example.
But it’s not so much that injuries are part of the game as it is that it isn’t in the NFL’s best interest to remind viewers how normal injuries are. If they can show enough commercials, viewers won’t have to see how a player’s neck is checked, or watch as he is carefully strapped to a brace. The one shot they never miss however, is the thumbs up as a player is driven off the field. Don’t linger on the tears.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll had an update Monday on Taylor, reported Seahawks.com: “He’s got more tests to do just to double-check and triple check and make sure he’s OK—MRIs and stuff today—but the initial return is that he didn’t have any major damage at all. He feels good, I talked to him just a few minutes ago; he’s got a sore neck right now, he’s got a stiff neck, but relative to what it looked like and what we were having to deal with, he really got a great turnaround, great news.”
Taylor was thankfully not catastrophically injured. But this is not an unexpected or unusual occurrence during the NFL season. It’s time we stopped treating it that way.