ASHBURN — When Alex Smith was in the hospital with his football future still very much in doubt two years ago with a life-threatening leg injury, the Washington quarterback decided he wanted to capture his recovery process in a documentary with ESPN.
Though he admits the project isn’t normally “his style,” Smith said he wanted to participate to help others — and himself.
If other quarterbacks in the NFL take a similar approach, there might be a lot of new films here soon.
The league has suffered a rash of quarterback injuries this season. Smith saw two firsthand — first with his teammate, Kyle Allen, suffering a broken ankle and most recently with the Bengals’ Joe Burrow tearing his ACL and MCL in Sunday’s loss to Washington.
Washington’s Thanksgiving matchup with the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday will technically be a meeting of backup quarterbacks: Andy Dalton is filling in for an injured Dak Prescott (ankle).
Through 11 weeks, five starters have landed on injured reserve — Burrow, Allen, Prescott, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo.
Two others — the Jets’ Sam Darnold and Jacksonville’s Garnder Minshew — have also missed significant time. And Chicago could be without Nick Foles (hip) and Mitchell Trubisky (shoulder) this weekend against the Packers.
The NFL’s marquee position is experiencing an injury wave reminiscent of 2017, when household names like Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck went down.
“This is a physical game,” Smith said Sunday. “Injuries are part of this game as unfortunate as they are. … You don’t ever want to see anybody get hurt. But that’s not reality.”
Burrow’s injury, in particular, was a downer. The 23-year-old had become a sensation for the Bengals, carrying over his college success when he thrilled the country with a Heisman-winning season at LSU. Burrow was living up to the high expectations that come with being drafted first overall, and seemed poised to become the NFL’s next true superstar.
That still may happen. ACL injuries aren’t the death sentence for player that they were for athletes in past generations — Houston’s Deshaun Watson came back fine from when he tore his knee as a rookie in 2017. But Burrow’s injury was nonetheless frustrating, given the makeup of Cincinnati’s offensive line.
Before going down, Burrow was battered throughout his first 10 games. He had been sacked 32 teams, behind only Russell Westbrook and Carson Wentz. His 33 hits ranked eighth among quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Reference.
“People keep talking about the offensive line without it seemingly watching the film from the last four weeks,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked if his team could have done more to protect Burrow. “Those guys have done a good job. It’s been a revolving door of players, we’re doing a great job. … We’re not going to apologize for any of that.”
Taylor could have a point. Quarterbacks don’t just go down because of poor offensive line play. The Saints have one of the NFL’s best units up front, but Brees had been playing with 11 cracked ribs before he was put on injured reserve. Brees is expected to return this season, but his latest injury now marks two years in a row in which the 13-time Pro Bowler has landed on injured reserve. Brees, 40, sat out five games last year with a broken thumb.
Brees is the biggest star this year to be sidelined, though Dallas and San Francisco have certainly missed Prescott and Garoppolo. Once preseason Super Bowl favorites, both teams are fighting to make the playoffs and are under .500.
Prescott went down in Week 5, Garoppolo last played in Week 8.
For all the injuries, it’s hard to gauge whether the rate at which quarterbacks are injured is increasing. A FiveThirty Eight article from 2017 found that season’s injuries to the position ranked only eighth in Adjusted Games Lost, a Football Outsiders metric that measures the games missed and adjusting the importance of that player. A backup, for instance, would not count unless the starter was also injured.
The NFL has implemented rules aimed at protecting quarterbacks over the years, most notably when the league banned lunging at a quarterback’s knees in 2009 — dubbed the “Brady Rule” when Tom Brady tore his ACL the year on that type of hit. The league has also tried to lessen players putting their body weight on a player after the initial hit, leading to a rise of roughing the passer calls in 2018.
The rules changes haven’t sat well with defenders — even former ones.
Two weeks ago, Washington coach Ron Rivera, a former linebacker, indicated that he was unhappy with a late-game roughing the passer penalty that swung the team’s 30-27 loss in Detroit. Rookie Chase Young knocked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to the ground after letting the ball go, drawing a flag that helped put the ball at midfield.
“The quarterbacks are treated extra special,” Rivera said. “So we have to be aware of that.”
Stafford? He’s banged up, too. He suffered a torn ligament in his thumb against Washington and is now grinding out the pain.
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