Bernstein: Injuries Damage NFL Product

By Dan Bernstein

Tony Romo has a broken back, Teddy Bridgewater’s knee is shredded, a rotating quarter of the Bears’ entire team has been debilitated, and we’re still almost two weeks away from the start of the 2016 season.

This is life for you as an NFL fan, as nothing stops the inexorable meat grinder of injury and attrition that destroys rosters and the best-laid plans of coaches and executives. Other sports have freak injuries to key players, but pro football is about physical trauma as much as anything else, still, despite all the effort to employ the best practices of medicine, science and common sense to protect players.

And this isn’t even delving into the brain-damage issue – the shadow of dementia and death lurking under our day-to-day attention to the game and enjoyment of brutal spectacle. That inherent moral conflict is tamped down enough at this point by most who even acknowledge it, waiting for a favorite team’s games to begin. It’s there, but we work hard to not see it.

Training camp and in-season practice time and intensity has been lessened, with both parties in collective bargaining agreeing to limit contact. Training staffs have tripled in size, now employing nutritionists, sleep experts and yoga masters, ostensibly to make bodies less likely to break between summer and winter. Work facilities have evolved from dank weight-rooms of clanging iron into vast day-spas of therapeutic technology.

But no team will be spared football’s ravages. More quarterbacks will go down and out, at a time where there are nowhere near enough to even fill the league’s 32 starting slots competently, let alone the backup positions. Many players being released now will be back later as the body count climbs, coming in from civilian jobs to put pads back on and feed the beast. Even the terminology is changing as general managers know they’re likely to need more human resources than currently allotted, with some referring to their “ready list,” as in ready to join the team when needed, like a volunteer firefighter. It sounds better than “street free agent,” perhaps.

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And even as we consume every last morsel of all things NFL during the whole calendar year, gorging ourselves at Roger Goodell’s trough of television, gambling and merchandising, nothing can be done to keep the sheer physics from eroding the quality of the actual product. The collisions we crave are equations of mass and velocity and transferred force, and the energy has to end up somewhere. When all is said and done, these machines of bone, muscle and cartilage can only be so elastic before they must be replaced.

The Thursday night fiasco is some of the saddest evidence of what’s at work here, particularly after the first weeks of play have inflicted many car-accidents worth of damage around the league. We tune in by the many millions to watch under-recovered athletes slog into each other, dragging themselves back to the huddle time and again, like farm oxen yoked to a plow.

It lends legitimacy to those who instead prefer the high-level college game, in which the best programs have a boundless supply of size and speed at their disposal. Lose both starting receivers? No worry, because two more five-star recruits with 4.4 40-times are ready to go. There are enough talented players hoarded at some national-title contenders to supply five schools at any given time, and the spread-option offenses mean little drop-off even at quarterback, so it’s plug-and-play and off they go, younger and fresher and more resilient than ever.

Not so in the NFL, however, the billion-dollar business of controlled entropy. Order tends to disorder, and we follow the deterioration until the next draft class arrives.

We fill stadiums to cheer the equal and opposite reactions that occur when bodies exert force on one another. Vector sums of accelerated constant masses flash on our giant televisions and tablets. An object stays in motion until something acts upon it, much to our delight.

Watching Cam Newton, thinking about Sir Isaac.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.

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