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NFL Sees Fewer Injuries, More Recoveries In 2020

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is Week 12 in the National Football League season, a season that is, like so much else around the world, very different because of the coronavirus. Along with whatever's happening on the field, so much of the news has been about games postponed and players testing positive, including the starting quarterbacks for the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos this week. In fact, the Broncos had all of their quarterbacks declared ineligible for their game today against the Saints due to COVID concerns. A wide receiver from their practice squad who played quarterback in college took the reigns instead.

But we're also wondering if the season has been extra tough on quarterbacks in the more typical way, as in many of them have been getting hurt. Last week, it was Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals. But in previous weeks, numerous other franchises saw their quarterbacks ruled out or made questionable by injuries, including Dallas, Washington, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Miami and San Francisco. We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Judy Battista. She's a columnist for the nfl.com site and also appears regularly on the NFL Network. Judy, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JUDY BATTISTA: It's my pleasure being here. Thank you.

MARTIN: So, first of all, what do you think? Has this NFL season been particularly hard on quarterbacks?

BATTISTA: I do not think so. Now, we don't have obviously complete data yet about that. But my impression is that most of the injuries suffered by quarterbacks are, you know, the sort of one to two to three-week variety. They are not - there hasn't been a rash of season-ending injuries. There have been some. Dak Prescott is the most obvious one. Joe Burrow is the most recent one. But I don't think in raw numbers that this year has been particularly harder on quarterbacks than other years have been.

MARTIN: Well, I take your point, because in just sort of going back over my notes, I saw that there have been quarterback panics every couple of years, Right? Like in 2019, there was a quarterback panic. In 2012, there was a quarterback panic. But earlier in the season, there was speculation that because the NFL didn't have a normal preseason this year - because of the pandemic, of course - that there might be more injuries in general. Do you think that's true?

BATTISTA: So far, the numbers that they were concerned about was for the preseason practices. And that - those injury numbers - the soft-tissue injuries, ACLs, MCLs, things like that, Achilles tears - those were the things they were really focused on. And those numbers were in line with the average of the last five years. So that was, I think, a bit of a relief that we did not see a spike there. You know, we're going to have to see what the entire season looks like because certainly the wear and tear of a season accumulates. And the question is, were their bodies built up enough, especially without the preseason games?

When you talk to players and coaches, the lack of preseason games was a real concern because they all said, like, you sort of have to get used to taking those hits so that when you do it at full speed in the regular season games, you know, it's not a new thing. You've sort of built up calluses. So it'll be interesting to see. But right now, the feeling in the league is that the numbers are not going to be crazy, that they're probably going to be in line with the average number of injuries, which I can tell you will - that'll generate a sigh of relief in the NFL.

MARTIN: For sure. You can never call an injury, you know, a good thing. But if there's any silver lining at all, if we could use that expression to these injuries, is that, you know, backups get a chance to shine. Have there been any surprises there, anything that stood out to - anybody who stood out to you?

BATTISTA: Getting Alex Smith back on the field for the Washington Football Team. He was not the starter this season, and an injury forced him out there. And, of course, he is coming off his own horrific leg injury. And the subsequent complications nearly cost him his leg. And now he's back. To my mind, he would have been the comeback player of the year in the NFL under any circumstances, but now he's playing and playing well. They're winning games with him. I mean, he's one of the best stories in the league anyway. But he is probably the best sort of backup star turn that we're going to see this year.

MARTIN: I can see that, especially given that the injury was so gruesome and just so terrible to watch. But yet, you know, still no job offers were probably the most high-profile unemployed quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Could he come in handy somewhere or is that just - is story just over?

BATTISTA: Well, he could come in handy. My sense is that the story is probably over because if a team was going to sign him, they would have done it by now. And the rules of this season sort of complicate things even further for Colin Kaepernick because you have to - you sort of have to be held in reserve for five days. You have to pass a bunch of COVID tests before you can join the team. So even, you know, the Denver situation, where they literally have no quarterbacks available, they could not have just hurried up and brought in Colin Kaepernick because he wouldn't be eligible. He has to, you know, pass all these COVID tests. But it's hard to imagine that, given some of the quarterback situations we see around the league, that he could not get out there and, you know, after a few weeks of work, get ready to play.

MARTIN: And how do you think the fans are taking all this? I mean, I think, you know, some people are just so grateful to have something to watch. Other people - I don't know. What do you think? How do you think this season's going to be remembered?

BATTISTA: I think generally that's how most fans feel, is, you know, they're happy that they're playing. And I think the NFL did a pretty good job of messaging early in the season. They basically said, like, this is not going to be a normal season. Nothing is normal. You know, nothing's normal for anybody - players, coaches, fans. Most teams don't have fans in their stadiums. But I do think fans, you know, still want to be able to watch football games. And I think that's how most fans feel is they're happy that the league is playing because it gives everybody something else to do.

MARTIN: That was Judy Battista, a columnist for nfl.com and a long-time reporter on the football beat. Judy, thanks so much for talking to us.

BATTISTA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.