According to a report from WBAY, Nick Collins’ future with the Packers has yet to be decided. “We’re going through the process in terms of getting all the medical reports from all the doctors,” said team president Mark Murphy. “I think sometime soon we’ll make a decision. It’s difficult. It’s kind of what Payton Manning went through with his. In some ways I think it’s more difficult because of the position Nick plays.”
Tom Silverstein wrote a terrific story on Collins a few days ago that probably left many fans feeling pretty optimistic about the chances of seeing the Pro Bowl safety back on the field in 2012. The author quoted numerous doctors and even a few players who espoused the safety of returning to the NFL after undergoing neck surgery.
Here’s what one of the doctors had to say: ”A lot of people think neck surgery, you’ll never be able to play again,” said Wellington Hsu, an assistant professor of spine surgery at Northwestern University who did a 20-year study of NFL players who suffered the very same injury Collins did. “That was the thought among many spine surgeons. In fact, no, you can get back to playing, and you can play at a high level.”
Here’s what one of the players had to say: ”I think the other two guys just didn’t want the liability,” former Bills and Falcons safety Keion Carpenter said of the doctors who refused to clear him to play again. “They didn’t want something to happen and be sued. After the fusion, I passed the physical and went back to work. I was a little gun-shy at first. You’re a little nervous. But one of the most important things was that I had my full range of motion in my neck. I didn’t have any serious issues with it. I retired because of my knee, not my neck.”
We have no idea what the doctors in New York told Collins last week, but let’s assume they cleared him to play. That would only be the first hurdle in his journey back to the football field. The second hurdle would be receiving the green light from Green Bay’s team doctors, who have a longstanding reputation of being extremely cautious when it comes to neck injuries. And the third hurdle would be general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy allowing him to put on his No. 36 jersey. Based on the fact that both men agreed they couldn’t see allowing their sons to play again if presented with the same choice, this might be the most difficult hurdle of all to clear.
I don’t doubt for a second that Collins’ health is the first and foremost concern of Thompson and McCarthy. They are decent men who care more about Collins the human being than they do about Collins the football player. That said, the NFL is still a business, and like all businesses there’s a bottom line. The bottom line in the NFL is the salary cap. Collins currently counts $4.775 million against the cap – or almost enough money to sign an entire rookie class. Again, I’m not saying this will be the deciding factor in whether the former Bethune-Cookman star will be flying around Lambeau Field in the fall, but it would be naïve to think it’s not at least a small part of the equation.
Regardless of what the doctors say, there’s no guarantees when it comes to neck injuries. Here’s more from the story: “Though the incidence of paralysis after single-level fusions is zero, it doesn’t mean there can’t be some problems. If there is an issue after fusion surgery, it isn’t with the fused discs but usually the ones above or below them. Because those discs assume the stress from the fused part of the neck, they sometimes will rupture. The player will be forced to retire knowing he might face a lifetime of limited range of motion and discomfort..Ravens corner Samari Rolle had fusion surgery in 2008, came back the following year and suffered another neck injury that forced him to retire.”
To further illustrate that point, Silverstein – in a separate story – wrote about former Packer Johnny Holland, who was allowed to resume his career after a neck injury. “In a game against the Houston Oilers on Dec. 13, 1992, in the Houston Astrodome, Holland suffered a herniated disc in his neck and chose to have fusion surgery after the season. The surgery went great and Holland returned to start all 16 games the following year, but in the 17th game, against the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, he injured his neck again.” Holland said he still feels tingling and doesn’t have full range of motion. Nevertheless, he said he would still support Collins decision to return if he really wants to play again.
And forget about the potential physical risks for a minute. Football players often talk about how the most difficult part of returning from a major knee injury is getting over it mentally. Sometimes it takes players a full year before they trust their knees. In fact, Finley alluded to this recently. And that’s coming back from a knee injury. Can you imagine the trepidation a safety would likely feel just seconds before having to come up and tackle a 250-pound fullback or a 270-pound tight end in the open field? The point is, even if Collins returns to play next season, there’s obviously no guarantee that he’ll be the player he was before the injury. In fact, logic tells you he won’t be that player.
If you’re Thompson and McCarthy, are you willing to roll the dice on a player’s long-term health AND risk almost $5 million of valuable cap space? That’s the question they’ll have to answer if the specialists in New York City and Green Bay concur that Collins is fit to return to action. Personally, I don’t think it’s going to get that far because I don’t think the team’s doctors will give their OK. As I wrote a few months ago, the organization has a long history of erring on the side of extreme caution when it comes to neck injuries. But if they do give their OK, McCarthy and Thompson will still have one gigantic reason and about 5 million much smaller ones to put a halt to any prospective comeback.