Thursday afternoon, on a practice field in Houston, Deshaun Watson, the Texans’ electrifying rookie quarterback, ran a non-contact sweep play only to go down with a torn ACL. Just like that, he was lost, in a split second, for the season.
This came hours after the Indianapolis Colts announced their star quarterback, Andrew Luck, would head to the injured reserve, meaning he won’t take a single snap this entire year. It came in a week when the courts said Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott should serve his six-game suspension for domestic violence, and Papa John blamed his sagging pizza sales on the league.
Watson and Luck join Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt and other megastars shelved by injury. About the only healthy QB left is Colin Kaepernick and the protests he inspired have dominated the news coverage of the league. At least President Donald Trump has lost interest of late.
The National Football League is the biggest bully on the block – arrogant and greedy – so there are few tears shed when fortunes break bad. Yet even its greatest critics would have to acknowledge the fall of 2017 has been full of bum luck.
The NFL could really use a break.
The loss of Watson is a particular gut punch because he has been one of the few universal feel-good stories of the season. A brilliant talent and likable personality fresh off winning a national title at Clemson, he has produced the kind of must-watch play that has been hard to come by this year. He has thrown 19 touchdowns and run for two more, earning NFL Offensive Player of the Month and AFC Offensive Rookie of the Month honors for October. His 16 TDs last month broke the rookie record set by Dan Marino way back in 1983. Now Watson will struggle to be ready for the start of next season.
At just 22 years old, he was a breath of fresh potential that the NFL desperately needs, especially at quarterback.
Tom Brady may be out to prove this wrong, but he can’t play forever.
The word out of Indianapolis was less of a surprise, but no less of depressing. Luck hasn’t played in 2017 after having shoulder surgery in January. It remains sore, requires additional rest and rehab but, the team cautioned, the injury isn’t fatal for his career. At least the Colts hope.
“I’ve heard all sorts of rumors about ‘career-ending,’” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “That’s not the case here. I’ve not got that from one doctor. Career-ending is putting him out on the field before he’s ready to play. … We’re doing everything we can as an organization to give Andrew a chance, and Andrew’s doing everything he can to have a chance, to have a long-term career.”
Luck threw 40 touchdowns in 2014 and looked like the league’s next big thing. That was always his ceiling. The Colts let Peyton Manning walk to go all in on Luck – Manning reached two Super Bowls, winning one in Denver before retiring.
Yet Luck played just 22 games in the past three seasons. Indy can brush off career concerns all it wants, but when 10 months after surgery doctors are refusing to clear a guy, who the heck knows. With quality quarterback play so elusive for the league to find, the loss of a guy who could clearly do it is devastating.
It’s been that kind of year, though. The NFL is the most popular and powerful entertainment property in the country (and will remain so) because millions love watching the game played at the highest level. No one wins when recognizable stars and brilliant talents such as these two, Rodgers, Beckham and Watt are gone.
Starring in all the commercials just isn’t the same.
Meanwhile, off-the-field headlines remain. CTE issues linger. The league’s suspension of Elliott has become a weekly battle of court-ordered pingpong, back-and-forth with the NFL, which is sure to win in the end. Anything that reminds the public of the league’s issues with domestic violence is never good.
Protests during the pregame national anthem have mostly settled back to early season level, before Trump used it as a wedge issue to fire up supporters and distract from legislative failures. He hasn’t tweeted anything in a week and a half about the issue, but Texans owner Bob McNair ignited his own controversy when he declared the league couldn’t let the “inmates run the prison.”
It’s like it never ends. Papa John says he can’t sell as many pizzas because of it, although Pizza Hut and Domino’s came out and questioned that bit of scapegoating. The idea of three cheap pizza chains using the NFL to throw shade at each other is embarrassing for The Shield.
ESPN claims as many as 17 owners want Roger Goodell fired. They need 24 to do it, but the way this is going, who knows.
The league is resilient. It’s made it through work stoppages, replacement players, dogfighting trials, child-abuse cases, murders and the Matt Millen Detroit Lions. It’ll survive this.
Yet for the loyal fans who simply want to tune in and watch some great players and some great games, the hits just keep on coming. Watson, the most exciting rookie in a few years, is gone. Luck, expected to be the best of the new generation of quarterbacks, never arrived this season.
That was just one Thursday afternoon. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Someone put Brady in Bubble Wrap.