Here’s the simple truth about injuries in the National Football League: It’s a lie.
All of it. Everything — from comments by coaches and players, to the injury report issued by the league office each week during the regular season, to the way teams use the information in their preparation — is riddled with half-truths and falsehoods.
A lot of times the deception includes some nugget of fact. Others are well-crafted deceits intended to send a completely false message. Sometimes the lie is the result of circumstances that change over the course of several days.
The bottom line is that none of it can be trusted.
But as soon as the Tennessee Titans report for training camp next week, the questions will start, as fans and media try to ferret out the truth on behalf of their rooting interest for their team, their fantasy football efforts or even their gambling pursuits — legal or otherwise. (Click here to see how the injury report is supposed to work.)
Immediately, the questions will start about the state of Kenny Britt’s surgically repaired knee. Before long, other players will get hurt in practice sessions or in preseason games, and they will be asked to update their health status — over and over again until they are clearly 100 percent recovered or close to it.
And things will be no different around the rest of the league. In Denver, there will be countless queries in regard to Peyton Manning’s neck, just as was the case all of last year in Indianapolis. In Houston, they will wonder about Matt Schaub’s foot.
Injuries — like it or not — are big news.
Coverage of that news, however, is nothing more than the NFL’s version of a “reality” television series. Sure, the people are real, and it makes for an interesting topic of conversation, but very little about it is authentic.
“I tell you what I feel like you can handle,” Titans coach Mike Munchak, whose Hall of Fame playing career was cut short by knee injuries, said with a laugh. “How many times can you say the same thing? ‘I’m working. I’m rehabbing. I’m doing everything I can. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow.’ It’s pretty much true. It’s a boring answer, but that’s pretty much how it is. … It’s about being careful to say as close to what you know as you can.”
It is not as if anyone is placed under oath when they face questions about their sprained ankles or “tweaked” knees or the myriad other health issues that arise during the course of a 16-game season played by large, incredibly athletic individuals.
In that sense, athletes are free to say whatever they want. Depending on the player or the situation, though, a process similar to lawyers prepping a witness for a deposition is liable to take place before a player ever gets in front of a camera or a voice recorder.
Matt Hasselbeck, for example, was the starting quarterback for most of 10 seasons in Seattle but stayed healthy enough to start every game in only two. That means he had plenty of experience in how to tiptoe around the truth. He also got plenty of coaching.
“Usually, I would get directions from the head coach on what he wanted me to say,” Hasselbeck said. “And then maybe from the trainers what I was going to say. And then from the PR guy what I was going to say. …
“It’s very uncomfortable. It’s awkward. It’s hard to do. It’s a drain. … In 2008, I hurt my back, and I knew I was out for a while. But I had to sort of do the dance like, ‘Well maybe I can come back next week.’ Technically, I could have come back … maybe. But I knew in my heart that it wasn’t going to happen.”
Only in the case of a catastrophic injury or significant surgery, such as the one that sidelined Britt for the final 13 contests last fall, is the truth obvious to everyone — and that includes the injured player.
The competitive nature of guys in the NFL is such that they often can’t be honest with themselves. With that in mind, it seems a lot to ask for them to be honest with the public at large, not to mention an upcoming opponent.
“Everybody has something going on,” linebacker Will Witherspoon said. “I’m going to let you know how I feel about it. The other guy is going to let you know how he feels about it. … Everybody wants to be on the field on Sunday.
“It also comes down to the fact that your own health plays into your mindset.”
There are players who have the ability to convince themselves they are well enough to play regardless of what ailments they face in the days leading up to the game.
It is a skill, just like speed, soft hands, power and intelligence. In some cases it is just as valuable, if not more so.
“A lot of times the athlete doesn’t even know,” Munchak said. “Like, if you had called me on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, I’d think I’m not playing. Then all of a sudden by Saturday I’d feel like, ‘Yeah, I’m playing.’ Then you’d say, ‘You lied to me.’ But a lot of times, that’s how it was with my knees. I couldn’t tell how I was going to be. Sometimes it surprised me on Thursday and Friday.”
Former Titans quarterback Steve McNair built an unforgettable reputation with his ability to play through pain. In his later years, it almost was the norm for him to sit out practice all week but to play — and play well — on Sundays. There also were the times he spent entire plane rides to away games walking up and down the aisles because his balky back wouldn’t allow him to sit still for long.
Even though — or perhaps because — his ability to play was never out of the question, McNair faced countless queries over the years about his availability for games. Typically, the reality of the situation wasn’t known until the game.
“A lot of guys don’t understand all that goes into, ‘Am I going to be able to play?’ or, ‘How do I really feel?’ ” Munchak said. “It really does change. It seems like it shouldn’t, and in some cases, obviously, it doesn’t, like if a guy’s had surgery. But for the guy that had the sore knee, the elbow, the neck, the back, it’s really hard to tell you on Wednesday he’s definitely out unless it’s a major thing. …
“Some guys just rally to the cause. Somehow their bodies don’t let them down.”
The league doesn’t do the players any favors in that it essentially puts them on the spot when it publishes the injury report during the practice week.
Typically, the list includes players who were noticeably hurt the previous Sunday but also reveals situations that most people outside the locker room might not otherwise have been aware of. Either way, it opens a line of questioning most players would rather not face.
Last season it did not take long for tight end Craig Stevens to grow weary of inquiries regarding a shoulder injury, which at best, bothered him, and at worst, caused him to miss one contest. His displeasure was obvious to all who asked about it.
The majority of the players deal with the situation in a much more emotionless manner. They speak in generalities that satisfy the basic line of questioning without giving any real information.
“No one wants to be hurt,” safety Jordan Babineaux said. “Everyone wants to be on the football field. So having to grind in the training room day-in and day-out to get yourself back on the field, and then to have to answer questions that relate to the particular injury, it just becomes a sense of redundancy. … You can’t make the club in the tub, and everybody knows that.
“It’s not so much having to lie. It’s giving them enough, but not everything they need to know.”
Even the injury report itself rarely tells much of the story. Often, the lies — or at least the misinformation — start right there with the primary source of injury information.
Witherspoon says he played an entire season with a torn rotator cuff and bone spurs in his shoulder, a particularly painful and taxing set of circumstances. The injury report typically listed his situation as a “bruised shoulder,” he said.
And the language of the report may go beyond just minimizing the nature of the injury. It can venture into a sort of code where one thing means something totally different.
“A popular one is you have intercostal cartilage in your ribs,” Hasselbeck said. “If you get hit really hard right there, and you have sore ribs, you don’t necessarily want to — on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or whatever — say the quarterback has sore ribs. You’re just telling your opponent, ‘Hey, why don’t you just bring the house and blitz me?’ So sometimes on the injury report what they might say is ‘back spasms.’ That’s a result of intercostals damage. Your back will seize up. So that’s an example of something that is sort of true.”
It all raises questions about the validity or even the necessity of the injury report.
Players generally accept it as a tool to help maintain competitive balance. Teams are less inclined to take chances with the health of their own players or to make unreasonable demands if there are no secrets.
A more cynical view is the injury report reflects the league tacitly condoning gambling, which is a highly profitable industry for casino sports books and the like.
Given the unreliable nature of injury information, those most directly affected by it view it with a hearty dose of skepticism.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not, so I don’t want to buy into that stuff,” Munchak said, referring to reports about opponents’ fitness. “When I played, I would rather not have known anything. I’m not going to prepare any different. Now, if I see a weakness during a game, I’m going to go jump on that. I’m going to take advantage of a weakness I find during a game. But I’m not going to go into a game with a plan for something I think is a weakness, and all of a sudden I find out it’s not.
“To me, the less information the better. I’d rather just know he’s suiting up, he’s going to be there, and I’m going to be playing against that guy. If he doesn’t have his ‘A’ game, I’ll be thankful when I see that.”
In other words, seeing is believing. If there is a question about a player’s health, pregame warm-ups are the best time for an opposing team to get at the truth. Players and coaches know when they look at someone whether his movement is compromised in some way.
Listening to anything prior to that time is ripe with risk. Still, as teams look for any advantage during their preparation, they are prone to believe something about an injury, if they feel the source is reputable enough.
Even then, there are no guarantees.
“That happened to us one year in Green Bay,” Hasselbeck said. “We were playing the Steelers and [safety] Carnell Lake had an ankle [injury]. We had ‘intelligence’ on the other side that he was on crutches and in
a boot on Friday. So we were going to go after him, and on Friday we set our game plan for it.
“He came out, and he probably hurt on Monday, but on Sunday he was ballin’. He played really, really well. It was kind of like we went at basically their best player, and he dominated us.”
However he felt on Monday, he probably didn’t tell the truth when he was asked.
KEY DATESA look at upcoming events of note for the Titans and the NFL:
July 27 Titans players report for training camp
July 29 First public Titans training camp workout (6:30 to 8:30 p.m.)
Aug. 3 Titans single-game tickets go on sale, 10 a.m.
Aug. 5 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game (Arizona vs. New Orleans)
Aug. 6 Titans workout with Atlanta Falcons at Dalton, Ga.
Aug. 11 Titans preseason game at Seattle, 9 p.m. (NFL Network)
Aug. 17 Titans preseason game at Tampa Bay, 6:30 p.m. (WKRN-TV)
Aug. 19 Final Titans training camp workout
Aug. 23 Titans preseason game vs. Arizona, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 27 NFL roster limit reduced from 90 to 75 players
Aug. 30 Titans preseason game vs. New Orleans, 7 p.m. (WKRN-TV)
Aug. 31 NFL roster limit reduced from 75 to 53 players
Sept. 9 Titans regular-season opener vs. New England, noon (CBS)