We’re close to kickoff, so it’s time to acknowledge that despite all the variations, all the coach cliches and all the Xs and Os, there are really only two ways to win in the NFL: collect talent, then keep it on the field.
A lot of teams are much better at the former than the latter. Some teams aren’t great at injury management, but they’re great at roster construction. As players get more expensive and that 53-man roster gets more and more constrictive, injuries get more important. However, the NFL not only hasn’t gotten better at dealing with it, they’ve actually gotten worse this year in telling us a player’s status.
The Official Injury Report has been changed slightly, taking it from problematic to worthless. Luckily, I’m here to help. I’ve been watching sports through the lens of sports medicine for almost two decades. I’ll be explaining the injuries and telling you what it means. I’ll also be around every Sunday because the inactive list is now going to be even more important. Follow me on Twitter (@injuryexpert) and I’ll do my best to help.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City (post-knee surgery)
Charles might not play in Week 1. This isn’t a bad sign and it’s certainly not an indication of setback. Instead, this is why we give ranges for comeback dates, even when we have a perfect comp for an injury as we do with this one. Charles just didn’t quite make it back in time and the Chiefs seem to be a bit cautious here.
I won’t give you the “if this were the playoffs …” trope, but it holds true. Charles could play, but it’s probably better in the long term if they wait. Charles isn’t yet running with the confidence that the team wants to see. This is often the last thing that comes, and while it surprises me a bit that it’s delaying him, the Chiefs are very good at this kind of thing. Charles is still a great back and the team would rather have him for a playoff push than the season opener.
Julio Jones, Atlanta (sprained ankle)
Jones’ fracture isn’t much different than the others we’ve seen, but it does raise a red flag when we see him struggling a bit more with what looked to be a garden variety ankle sprain. The Falcons hardly had a reason to push him (or anyone) in the preseason, but if he’s not full go at practice this week, it’s going to get those red flags waving hard.
Jones is one where the new official injury designations are going to be a problem. My guess is that Jones will play, but that the team will have Plan A (with him) and Plan B (a light load for Jones.) Does Matt Ryan trust Mohamed Sanu? We’ll find out quickly, because behind him is a whole lot of nothing. This team needs Jones, so if he’s slowed, they’re in a quandary – push him and risk the future, or play down one game and hope to make it up later. Given that it’s a division game against a Bucs team that’s tough to read, the decision will be even tougher, so this one will go right up to the 11:30 deadline.
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay (post-knee surgery)
Again, the preseason gave us almost nothing to go on in regards to Nelson. The repaired knee isn’t the problem right now, but it causes a compensatory issue on the opposite knee. Until all of Nelson is ready, he’s not going to help Aaron Rodgers. His size/speed combo is worthless when he’s limping. The Packers medical staff has been very conservative on timing, but I’m told they’ve been aggressive behind the scenes, focusing much of the effort on correcting Nelson’s gait.
This is often a slow process because of how unnatural it feels, but the payoffs can be big, especially if Nelson stays fast on the field. It’s not a common process in the NFL, but I know a couple teams are watching closely. It wouldn’t surprise me, coming off an Olympic year, to see more track technique come into football.
Tony Romo, Dallas (fractured back)
The Cowboys didn’t put Tony Romo on the IR or the PUP. Some in the media acted surprised about this, but they shouldn’t have been. While a player can come off the IR, only one can in a season, so it has to be saved for a difference maker. This year, a team doesn’t have to designate someone. It can be anyone on the IR, but still only one. Romo’s compression fracture is his L1 vertebrae. This is similar to, but different than Cam Newton’s situation after a car wreck. Romo’s fracture is in the thick body of the bone itself, while Newton fractured the “tips” (the transverse processes.)
What’s interesting here is Romo’s fracture isn’t causing the kind of pain and spasm we normally see from a disc injury. Instead, this is about stability, which should return quickly. Romo is able to keep his cardio up and do all the things a QB would do except play (and take hits.) Romo’s in a back brace to take the normal pressure of standing upright in gravity off the bone to allow it to heal, but he should be able to come back quickly once it has. He should return to the more advanced rib protector he used previously, which should help with the inevitable hits. Overall, Romo could be back very quickly so the move to keep him on the roster isn’t surprising at all.
Thomas Rawls, Seattle (post-surgical ankle)
The Seahawks have been without Marshawn Lynch before, but the Skittles have left the building, leaving a bit of uncertainty behind Russell Wilson. Rawls showed he had the skill set to succeed last year, but his ankle injury was a real mess. He’s come back well, but for now, he’s just a bit behind Christine Michel. This is going to be a fluid situation. The quicker Rawls heals and shows he can handle things, the quicker the touch split will shift in his favor. It’s unclear when that is and there’s always the chance Michael takes the opportunity and runs with it. Rawls’ situation is going to be one I’m watching closely over the next few weeks.
Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati (post-surgical ankle)
Why did he wait so long? That’s the refrain of Bengals fans for the last month, watching Eifert try to make it back from ankle surgery. The answer is simple: He was trying to avoid surgery altogether. That’s always the best route, but Eifert’s ankle hit a plateau, which threw off the timing of the rehab. There was also a bit more extensive damage inside than they expected, which also extended things a bit, mostly because he was in a boot for longer than they’d hoped. Eifert isn’t going to play in Week 1, but he’s close.
Some are pushing Week 4 as the goal – Ian Rapaport of NFL.com was the first to quote this – but really it’s going to come down to when he can do the functional things again without deficit. The team is convinced it will be before Week 6. Until then, the Bengals will need to get Tyler Kroft healthy. Eifert’s backup has been out with a knee sprain and is just getting back to practice. Expect the wide receivers, especially AJ Green, to get more looks until Eifert is back.
Rob Gronkowski, New England (bruised knee)
Say what you will about Gronkowski, he’s a game changer. Add in Martellus Bennett (and Tom Brady in Week 5) and he’s clearly at the top of the TE tiers. The one skill he doesn’t have is durability. He had a mysterious injury that the Patriots described with a hockey-like “lower body” tag. It was a severe bruise that was indeed on his lower body (leg, on the side of his knee, though if you called it hamstring, I wouldn’t quibble.) It was painful, but not serious. Gronkowski will be ready for Week 1 and doesn’t have any expected deficits.
JJ Watt, Houston (post-back surgery)
Yes, Watt is going to play in Week 1, but no one seems to know whether this is a good idea. Watt is human and this kind of back surgery (microdiscectomy) is one that comes with a pretty high failure rate. Pushing to get back for the season opener is something every player wants to do, but a medical staff has to make sure the player is going to be healthy not just this week, but every week. The Texans medical staff has done pretty well with this kind of maintenance, so I’m not overly worried. I don’t expect Watt will play a full load, but there’s little doubt the Bears will test him with blocking schemes designed to stand him up and running Jeremy Langford right at him a time or two.
Teddy Bridgewater still hasn’t had surgery. He’s waiting on swelling and there’s really no rush. Question now remains how much other damage took place beyond the ACL. The real worry is the patellar tendon, since no one has come back from that, though the Vikings likely have a good idea on that. … Speaking of patellar tendons, Jimmy Graham still isn’t ready to play. He’s practicing, but Luke Willson will get the start in Week 1. … Victor Cruz, two years after his patellar rupture, is back, but he’s lost more than a step. He’s down to a backup wide receiver role, so don’t look for him to get a lot of targets. … Carlos Hyde remains in the concussion protocol and is reportedly still suffering symptoms. Concussions are impossible to time, so until Hyde is cleared, he’ll be off the field, leaving the Niners very thin at RB. … DeVante Parker is a key for the Dolphins aerial attack, but he hasn’t proven he can stay healthy yet. A hamstring strain is slowing him now, leaving his Week 1 in jeopardy.