The NFL is Structurally Broken
the Super Bowl doesn't crown a champion, it ends a war of attrition
In the image above you can see a moment that very well might have determined the champion of the 2022-2023 NFL season. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was tackled in a very awkward fashion, which resulted in a high ankle sprain. That was honestly the best-case scenario; I initially thought he had torn his ACL. Mahomes was able to finish that game and then win the next week against the Cincinnati Bengals to make it to the Super Bowl. But the scenario still crystallizes why I’m finding it harder and harder to enjoy the only sport I love. Look how close we came to losing the game’s best player.
The opponents the Chiefs will face in Super Bowl LVII, the Philadelphia Eagles, have had their own set of injuries to work through, none more pressing than the lingering issue quarterback Jalen Hurts has with his throwing shoulder, which could easily determine the outcome of the game. Hurts looked like serious competition for Mahomes in the MVP discussion before that shoulder injury forced him to miss multiple games down the stretch. Of course, the San Francisco 49ers won’t shed any tears for the Eagles, as they had four different players start at quarterback, the most important position on the field, and had to watch a one-armed Brock Purdy keep handing the ball off, down three touchdowns, in the middle of the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game. The Cincinnati Bengals are probably asking themselves whether they would have won the AFC championship game were it not for their patchwork offensive line, which they had to run out there because of numerous injuries. Or you might ask the Buffalo Bills, who looked like world-beaters in September but saw missed games from (deep breath) Von Miller, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Jamison Crowder, Mitch Morse, Dion Dawkins, Ed Oliver, Boogie Basham, Kaiir Elam, and of course Damar Hamlin, as well as an elbow injury to quarterback Josh Allen that limited his performance. The Tennessee Titans may be the most cursed of all, these past two years.
The truth is that every team in the league has injury problems. But they don’t all have the same extent of injury problems, at the same time. And what I can’t get past, with the only sport I really care about anymore, with the only sport I religiously follow, is that I’ve come to see the playoffs not as a fair system for determining the best team but as a big roulette wheel rewarding the team lucky enough to be the most healthy - the least hurt, which is still pretty hurt - at the right time of year. I would have loved to have seen a Super Bowl between, say, the best versions of the Bills and the Eagles that we saw this past season, or how well the Los Angeles Rams would have done defending their title if they didn’t lose their star quarterback, All-World receiver, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year for significant parts of the season. But you never get that with football. The game’s too inherently violent. And though I’ve never followed the league more closely, I’ve also never been more discouraged by it.
I should note what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that the number or severity of injuries has necessarily gotten worse in recent years. The data looks pretty inconclusive to me; this Football Outsiders piece from 2017 suggests injuries are more common, but that a lot of the difference lies in injury reporting rules and norms. This piece from 2020 suggests there really are more major injuries. It’s an empirical question that I can’t answer. What I can say is that the problem bothers me more and more every year. The Chiefs lost their best cornerback early in that game; the Bengals lost Tyler Boyd, who may be the best #3 wide receiver in the league. What would that game have looked like without those injuries? I don’t know, and you don’t either.
Of course other leagues have injuries, and those injuries have real consequences for who wins and loses. But it’s just not the same for baseball, basketball, or even hockey. Essential players being out of big games is a bummer in the NBA; multiple essential players being out of big games is a certainty in the NFL. The repeated injuries endured by Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers have certainly hurt the team in their struggles over the last few years. But the average NBA fan can trust that their team’s lineup in the beginning of the season will be more or less the same as the lineup in the playoffs, barring trades. And not only can you not say that about the NFL, you can very confidently say the opposite: players that you consider essential parts of your team’s roster will be missing for some of the most important games of the season, no matter which team you root for. It’s inevitable. And in a “game of inches,” a pulled hamstring for your team’s nickelback or fourth wideout can be the difference between failure and glory.
Not that the league has much reason to care. Even with ratings down 3% this year, NFL games dominate broadcast ratings like no other program. It’s the surest thing in TV, and for that reason, the league will keep on raking in billions. These kinds of complaints have little purchase with a league that’s as profitable as the NFL. And with the game’s basic appeal consisting of watching impossibly large fast strong men running into each other over and over again, I know it’s unrealistic to expect anything less than constant injuries. But personally, it’s getting harder and harder to feel invested in the outcome.
I'm a Pats fan (and have been for over 30 years, so even before the Dynasty, when we sucked). I've thought about this a lot - I think one of the things that was a little overlooked about the so-called "Patriot Way" was that they realized early on that middle-class players (veterans with ending rookie contracts) were the best deal in football and allowed you to build up tremendous depth. This gets them a lot of criticism for the "ponies not horses" part of the debate, but effectively it meant that (short of losing Brady in 08) the team could weather losing a number of starters because it had reasonable patches in place. So thing 1 I think is that smart teams can think of how to leverage the roster (especially with the new practice squad rules) to try to plan for this type of issue, accepting that it means you are not shooting for an elite team (or, more accurately, not shooting for a team of elite players with the exception of the QB of course). And eliminating the Emergency QB also explicitly took away a major chunk of injury insurance that the 49ers could have used.
Another factor in this honestly is that in the last few CBAs the amount of hitting, hard conditioning, and preseason practice has gone down drastically, as has the number of in-season padded practices. While I agree that preseason games are mostly injury-fests and too risky (though bubble players might beg to differ), I 100% think that losing that conditioning time is correlated to the higher injury rate.
For the other 3 major sports they often talk about a marathon not a sprint, given the huge number of games. The NFL is a marathon of another sort, given the attrition, and teams ought to explicitly plan for that.
I disagree that this is unique to football. If anything, due to the size of rosters and the sheer amount of players on the field, injuries impact the NFL the least (except, of course, at the QB position). I think you can argue that having enough depth on your roster to withstand the onslaught of injuries is proof that the Super Bowl champion is worthy.
Basketball, on the other hand, is a total crapshoot due to the small amount of players on the floor and the outsized impact a single player can have. Look at the Nets two years ago, when they were without Harden and Kyrie - they lost to the eventual champion Bucks by the slimmest of margins. Or last year, the Bucks took to the Celtics to the limit without Kris Middleton, but came up short because they needed his offense. The Celtics could have won the Championship if not for Robert Williams' knee giving out on him and crippling their interior defense. Kawhi's Raptors won after Klay tore his ACL and KD's achilles exploded. Every playoffs have many examples of this, but the difference in basketball is that there's no way to scheme around the absence of these players or have a "next man up" mantra like in football. If your second or third best player is out for a week or two, you're likely done. In the NFL, if your best offensive lineman goes down, you can still find ways to produce on offense. As a Patriots fan (I know), it felt gratifying to see the team win with Troy Brown at CB or third string special teams guys making key tackles because the team had planned for those moments when their 53 man roster would be pushed to its limits.
I'll reiterate the caveat that if your QB goes down, you're probably fucked and it's a fair criticism about the modern sport that one player can affect things so much.