Two nights in August will reverberate long and loud through the NFL's 78th season. Two nights when three playoff contenders quivered and nearly fell. Two nights when three quarterbacks faced potentially devastating injuries and came away with a best-case scenario each time.
On two separate nights six days apart, John Elway ruptured a biceps tendon in his throwing arm, Kerry Collins shattered his jaw in a helmet-to-helmet collision, and Mark Brunell suffered damage to three knee ligaments when a defensive player rolled into his right leg.
It wasn't just the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, who held their collective breath that week. It was the entire NFL.
Losing star-quality players -- quarterbacks, at that -- to injury is one of the worst things that can happen in the NFL. The league conducts yearly studies of injury rates. It legislates against cheap shots and compromising situations. It punishes -- sometimes severely -- those who violate that legislation.
But it cannot prevent injuries. No matter how hard it tries.
In this summer of uncommon violence in the NFL, that fact stands out above all others. Several starters or prominent players are headed to injured reserve before the Aug. 31 openers, their seasons finished already, and dozens more are going to miss playing time because of injury. It's not just quarterbacks getting hurt, either.
Green Bay running back Edgar Bennett tore his Achilles' tendon in the open field after an 18-yard run. Miami linebacker Zach Thomas broke his fibula in contact drills. Philadelphia tackle Richard Cooper tore his left triceps in pre-game warm-ups. Chicago wide receiver Curtis Conway broke his left collarbone when a cornerback landed heavily on top of him as he dived for a pass.
"It's a problem, and a growing problem," said Art Modell, owner of the Ravens. "But we must be philosophical. It's part of the risk of playing a contact sport."
Football isn't just a contact sport anymore, though. It's a collision sport. The bigger the bodies, the faster the speed, the worse the collision.
"It's physics," said Ravens trainer Bill Tessendorf. "Mass times speed equals "
A torn ACL? Those three initials are among the most dreaded in football. They stand for anterior cruciate ligament, and a damaged ACL is one of the quickest ways to wind up on injured reserve for the season.
Twenty-five years ago, your season was already over by the time a surgeon discovered a ruptured ACL. That was before magnetic resonance imaging, before arthroscopy, before sports medicine took off on a flight of its own.
"In the early '70s, if you had a medial collateral [knee] injury that was fairly loose, you went under the knife," said Dr. John Powell. "There were lots of MCL injuries. But we didn't know about the anterior cruciate [damage] until we went in.
"It was sometimes generally categorized with a catch phrase like 'internal derangement.' There was something wrong we couldn't identify in the clinic and we had to wait until we were inside [the knee]. Now we can clearly identify some of these injuries."
Powell's clinic, Med Sports Systems in Iowa City, Iowa, has been providing the NFL with injury analysis for more than 20 years. He would not supply numbers, but Powell refuted the notion that there is anything seriously amiss in the NFL, despite the seeming epidemic of training camp injuries.
"My perception is, it's a very dynamic game, played by very strong, skilled individuals," he said. "In that it is a collision game, there is inherent risk. [But] I don't see anything to indicate that level of risk is moving to the imminent hazard category."
Powell suggested this summer's "clustering" of injuries is merely a recurrence of events from the past 20 years. Each time, he said, the rash of injuries quietly passes and normalcy returns.
"As I've looked at it, in retrospect, I've found no differences in those years than any other years," Powell said. "Most of the time, a few key players sustain an injury, and, of course, the perception is, everything is changing. Whereas if a backup sustained the same injury, we probably would never have heard about it."
Nevertheless, it is the ferocity with which some of this summer's injuries have occurred that has focused attention on them. Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski struck Carolina's Collins under the face mask with the crown of his helmet on the night of Aug. 9.
Collins had just released a pass and, perhaps sensing Romanowski coming from his blind side, turned ever so slightly to the left. The timing produced horrible consequences. Collins got up spitting blood, his jaw fractured in two places, an injury that required four hours of surgery. He will miss three or four
games before returning to the Panthers in late September.
For his helmet-to-helmet hit, Romanowski was fined a hefty $20,000 by the NFL. But if the fine was intended to serve as a warning to the rest of the league, the message was not well received.
Five days later, Lamar Lathon, a linebacker for those same Panthers, delivered a head-to-head shot on Kansas City quarterback Rich Gannon. Woozy and spitting blood, Gannon sat out one play with a lacerated tongue and a chipped tooth, then returned to the game.
Because this also violated league policy against helmet-to-helmet contact when the quarterback is in the pocket, the NFL fined Lathon $20,000.
Denver defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry drew still another fine last week, when he was assessed $7,500 for ramming New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe with his helmet.
These fines tend to agitate defensive players like Green Bay's Reggie White, who, after all, are paid to hit the quarterback.
"The thing that ticks me off," White said after the Romanowski hit, "is that every time one of the quarterbacks get hurt, the league and you guys [media] begin to question what's wrong with the defense and what we have to do to protect the quarterback.
"Since I've been in the league, they've been protecting the quarterback. We can't allow the league or the media to take away our aggressiveness. Injuries are happening, [but] they're happening on our side of the ball, too. No one questions it when a defensive player gets injured."
Elway, who tore his right biceps on a sloppy field in Mexico City on Aug. 4 without getting hit, agreed that the NFL has done everything it can to protect quarterbacks.
"The last couple of years, the emphasis has been on coming after the quarterback with the pass rush," he said. "It's a trend, but there's not anything more you can do to protect the quarterback. You can't put us in skirts."
And if a defense can get to a quarterback enough times, it enhances significantly its chances for success.
"People know the best way to affect an offense is to take the quarterback out," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "That's why it's such a big concern for league officials.
"No question people come out to see the great quarterbacks. But people come to see Reggie White play, too.
"It's a violent game. And it's supposed to be played that way, too."
Pos, Player, Team, Injury, How long out, Skinny
Harris Barton, 49ers, Knee, Opener, Replaced by Tim Hanshaw
RB, Edgar Bennett, Packers, Achilles', Season, Tackled on run
QB, Mark Brunell, Jaguars, Knee, 4 games, Low hit in pocket
QB, Kerry Collins, Panthers, Broken jaw, 4 games, High hit in pocket
WR, Curtis Conway, Bears, Collarbone, 7 games, DB landed on top
RT, Richard Cooper, Eagles, Torn triceps, Season, Pre-game warm-ups
C, Chris Dalman, 49ers, Knee, Opener, Replaced by Derrick Deese
WR, Kirby Dar Dar, Dolphins, Knee, Season, Star special teamer
DT, Reuben Davis, 49ers, Achilles', Late season, If IR, will miss entire year
QB, John Elway, Broncos, Torn biceps, 1 exhib., Threw pass
DT, Jumpy Geathers, Broncos, Achilles', Season, Probably career-ending
WR, Yatil Green, Dolphins, Knee, Season, Noncontact drill
Rodney Hampton, Giants, Knee, 2 games, Locked up in dressing room
OG, Sale Isaia, Ravens, Knee, Season, Noncontact drill
Larry Izzo, Dolphins, Knee, Season, Star special-teamer
Tory James, Broncos, Knee, Season, Torn patella tendon
CB, Selwyn Jones, Broncos, Knee, Season, Replaced James
MLB, Tom McManus, Jaguars, Knee, Season, Started for injured Bryan Schwartz in '96
LB, Junior Seau, Chargers, Knee, 1 game, Hurt early in camp
LB, Zach Thomas, Dolphins, Broken fibula, 1 game, Doubtful for opener
DE, Alfred Williams, Broncos, Triceps, 4 games, Replaced by rookie
C, Brian Williams, Giants, Eye, 1 game, Poked in eye in drills
C, Wally Williams, Ravens, Achilles', Mid-Oct., Off-season drill
Pub Date: 8/24/97