To the extent that there has been any joy to be found in the NFL this year, it was Aaron Rodgers that delivered it. In a season otherwise dominated by bad quarterbacks, bad games, lazy blowouts, and the noisy co-opting of demonstrations originally meant to protest racial injustice, Rodgers was both brilliant and fun. In multiple nationally televised games, Rodgers saved his team at the last minute. He improvised with confidence, mixed fearless runs with his reliably transcendent deep ball, and generally continued to do things that practically no one else on earth can do. He was great.
This being the NFL and football being football, Rodgers is also now gone, possibly for the rest of the season, after breaking his collarbone on what was apparently a legal hit from Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. I say “apparently” not because there appeared to be any ill intent from Barr, but because the difference between the hit that ended Rodgers’s season and ones that get flagged for unnecessary roughness are effectively negligible. It’s not clear that anyone really understands the difference between the two.
This is all normal, at least in the NFL. There is nothing wrong, in football terms, with the way that Aaron Rodgers got hit, or with the way Derek Carr injured his back, or with how Cam Newton gets treated seemingly every week. As much as the NFL tries to legislate against certain kinds of hits and fails, this is just what football does. Tweaking around the edges and bulking up the league’s massive rulebook can’t change the fact that physical damage is built into the sport.
The NFL is the only league that actively puts its best, most exciting players at such serious risk in each game. I’m sure that, if the league could heal the wounded, J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham, Aaron Rodgers, Julian Edelman, Brandon Marshall, Dalvin Cook, and all of the 274* players currently on injured reserve would be back out on the field next Sunday. But that’s not how football works, which means this is fundamentally a problem that the NFL can’t solve.
The NFL gets called the “No Fun League” because it’s an easy joke, and because it really does have a harsh allergy to any kind of individual expression. But people don’t watch games for the touchdown celebrations. They watch because of the astonishing athletes scoring the touchdowns. You can see the conflict, here: How can a sport that’s inherently set up to keep hurting those players also be fun?
“The deal in this league is that the train doesn’t stop moving,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after J.J. Watt got injured. “These guys are there, and they’re going to have to step in.”
That’s always been the mentality of the NFL. If someone gets hurt, that’s okay. Just send the next guy in. Everyone is replaceable, and if Aaron Rodgers gets chewed up and destroyed, you can just run Brett Hundley out there and everything will be, uh, fine.
But at some point, it’s not. Irreplaceable players are irreplaceable, not just for their teams but for the league itself. Take them out of the equation, one injury at a time, and you’re left with a league that is otherwise morally bankrupt and physically gruesome. At this moment in time, there’s no such thing as NFL football played safely. There’s nothing that can be done, short of changing the game dramatically, that will change that. Players lose seasons to injury all the time, and in a grim sense this was just Aaron Rodgers’s turn. But he’s also the latest reminder that this can’t be stopped.
*Correction (2:35 p.m. ET): I screwed up and double counted the IR list, originally writing that there were 548 players on it. It’s actually half that, as of right now.