Injuries 'emotionally tolling' as they pile up
Randall Cobb admitted he was scared. He called the play a bad dream. Three snaps into the Green Bay Packers' preseason game Saturday night, Cobb dove for a pass. He fell awkwardly, underneath a Philadelphia Eagles defensive back.
There was immediate pain in Cobb's right shoulder, but more intense fear. Cobb thought he broke his collarbone, he said. X-rays revealed no break, and Cobb exhaled.
"At least there's a silver lining in this injury," he said.
Cobb wasn't the only one scared Saturday night. To a man, players inside the Packers' locker room admitted their concern. Injuries are part of the game, to be sure. But this many injuries all within a couple weeks? It's hard for anyone to digest.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the rash of injuries has been average, or perhaps even below average, for a training camp. He has a point. The Packers have had 167 player absences because of injury through 16 public practices and three preseason games, according to data Press-Gazette Media has tracked.
Two years ago, that number was 327 after the third preseason game.
But the Packers were uncommonly healthy last year. They had only 116 player absences to this point in their preseason. Their only major injury to an established player in 2014 was defensive tackle B.J. Raji's torn, right biceps.
Now, it seems, the fortune of good health is quickly vanishing.
"It's kind of hard," receiver Jeff Janis said. "It's always in the back of your mind because you know if you go down, then we're really going to be hurting at numbers. But you've just kind of got to go out there and let it loose, and whatever happens, happens."
Injuries have already forced McCarthy to deviate from his usual plan. The third preseason game traditionally offers the most snaps for starting players. This year, McCarthy decided to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the sideline, protecting him from an offensive line missing three starters.
That's the carnage this preseason has already left. It continued Saturday.
Cobb's injury – significant or not – came six days after No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Pittsburgh. Defensive back Micah Hyde was carted off the field with neck spasms. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga left in the first half with a sprained ankle.
With Bulaga out, second-year center Corey Linsley was the only starting offensive lineman still standing.
"It's the sport we play," Linsley said. "It sucks, and you rally around the guys when stuff like that happens, because it's emotionally tolling."
It's inevitable for every player. Stay on the football field long enough, you'll get injured. That's the nature of this "violent game," as safety Morgan Burnett calls it.
But that emotional toll is taxing for a team. It's been especially hard this preseason. These Packers are a typically close-knit bunch, but that cliché means a little more inside their locker room. Remember, this is the only team that didn't add a player from another team during the offseason. This locker room has been together more than a year, with its core intact even longer.
"These guys," Burnett said, "we all build a bond. That's your brother. That's your family. So you don't want to see anything bad happen to anyone. You really just pray and hope for the best and hope that everything is not as bad as it looks. The next man up just has to be prepared and ready."
Nobody will feel sorry for them. Not in this sport. Last year, the Packers had the same starting offensive line in the final 16 games, counting playoffs. Inevitably, that wasn't going to last.
But "next man up" only carries a team so far. Eventually, there are fewer and fewer capable men. The toll is more than raw numbers on a depth chart. Psychologically, there's a feeling when momentum shifts, and suddenly innocent plays are becoming fluke injuries.
A fear you might be next.
"It's definitely in the back of your mind," running back Rajion Neal said, "but one thing I do try to do is just let it go. I try not to think about it. I try not to look at it. I don't want to watch replays. I just try to completely let it go."
Football players are wired to move on. It's how they talk, how they think. There is no time to dwell on the emotional pain of watching a key teammate leave the field with an injury during the middle of a game.
"It's really only tough for like a split second," rookie receiver Ty Montgomery said.
What does that "split second" feel like for a player? Montgomery paused.
"It hurts," he said. "It really hurts."
— Weston Hodkiewicz contributed to this report.
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