Niyo: Painful truth is injuries are part of the game

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions running back Ameer Abdullah has been placed on injured reserve after having surgery.

Allen Park — The mantra is “next man up,” but that’s more of a defense mechanism than a strategy. It’s a way of coping off the field as much as it is on it.

It’s dispassionate by design, because just about everyone knows what it feels like to be the man who goes down at some point in their career. And in a league often defined by its violence, no one wants to dwell on the seemingly inevitable consequence of it.

The injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent, as the saying goes. But while the statistical data — what there is of it, anyway — doesn’t always agree, after just two weeks of regular-season games this year, the injury list is littered with some of the league’s biggest names, many of them done for the year.

In the NFC North it’s looking particularly gruesome.

The Vikings, who lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a devastating knee injury before their opener, announced Wednesday that All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson also will undergo knee surgery and is out indefinitely, while starting left tackle Matt Kalil went on injured reserve with a hip injury.

In Chicago, quarterback Jay Cutler will miss the rest of this month, at least, with a sprained thumb on his throwing hand, while last year’s sack leader Lamarr Houston is lost for the season with a torn ACL. Linebacker Danny Trevathan is among a handful of starters also out indefinitely for the 0-2 Bears.

And for Green Bay and Detroit — two division rivals that’ll meet Sunday at Lambeau Field — much of the talk Wednesday centered around who won’t be playing, rather than who will. A week ago, the Lions had one player — linebacker DeAndre Levy — missing at Wednesday’s initial practice. This week, they had 10 times that many, including seven starters, including Levy, Pro Bowl defensive end Ziggy Ansah and running back Ameer Abdullah, who underwent foot surgery Tuesday and was placed on IR.

“But that’s part of the game — everybody has injuries all across the board,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “It’s just whether or not you want to make it an excuse, and we’re not going to make it an excuse. We’re going to find a way to get better.”

They have no choice, obviously, in the wake of last weekend’s brutal home loss to Tennessee, with road games at Green Bay and Chicago the next two weeks.

Lions place RB Ameer Abdullah on IR after surgery

“We’ve got to continue to call the same football plays,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said Wednesday, “and have the other guys on our roster step up and make plays.”

And in Abdullah’s case, the Lions do have options, with Theo Riddick taking on a larger role as the lead back, and rookie Dwayne Washington expected to get more carries out of the backfield along with Zach Zenner.

“When a guy goes down, we all feel for that player, that person,” said Zenner, who, not coincidentally, saw his rookie season cut short in 2015 by multiple cracked ribs and a partially collapsed lung. “At the same time, we understand that there’s a job that still needs to get done. We need to move on. It’s unfortunate for that person, but they don’t pause the games, so …”

‘Volume seems high’

So you say what they all say, from the coaches on down: Next man up.

As for the rash of injuries thus far?

“I’m not on top of what the numbers are, but I think it’s really a reflection of today’s NFL, unfortunately,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. “Injuries have always been a part of the game. It’s just a challenge. I know everybody is paying close attention to it. You’re looking at all your options and your training methods that go into this, but injuries are going to happen.”

Still, he adds, “The volume definitely seems high.”

If true, and it’s hard to say at this point, the reasons likely are varied. Today’s players are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before, but the equipment, the training and the rules haven’t necessarily kept pace. Newer concussion protocols could be a factor. And some in the league even have suggested that limiting offseason contact — player-safety concessions included in the NFL’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement — may play a role as well.

“There’s nothing you can do about it, so there’s really no sense of complaining about it,” McCarthy said, when asked about that last notion. “But I’m not a fan of the offseason structure at all.”

Players understand

No one’s a fan of the carnage, though. So as the players start digesting the new game plan each week in their meeting rooms, they’re also digesting all the grisly news from around the league. Players come limping in Monday, the news comes trickling out Tuesday, and it’s not always easy to swallow.

“It’s tough, man,” said Glover Quin, the veteran Lions safety. “You just feel for guys that have to deal with that. You never want to see guys go out like that, regardless of what team, whether it’s Adrian Peterson … or guys from Green Bay.

Reiff, Ansah, Levy among Lions' starters missing practice

“Does it change the game plan? Probably, sure. But you still don’t want to see guys go down. You want those guys to be playing. We’re NFL brothers. So you don’t want those guys getting hurt.”

You just know there’s a pretty good chance they will.

Next man up? That’s a loaded phrase, and everybody in the NFL understands the painful truth behind it.