After 17 regular-season games and four post-season matchups, a Super Bowl berth can take a huge physical toll on participants on both sidelines. Despite the NFL’s best efforts to reduce the grizzly knee ligament injuries and concussions that have threatened their league, injuries are part of the game.
But the greatest power is availability. That’s the battle the NFL and its team doctors have been fighting for decades. Part of making it to the Super Bowl is being healthy enough to contribute. The Bucs won the Super Bowl last year, in part thanks to injuries that decimated the Chiefs’ entire offensive line, opening them up to the Tampa Bay Pass rush.
Los Angeles was one of the healthiest teams in the league during the Sean McVay era, thanks in part to their head coach’s preference for fewer “full-go” workouts, shorter workouts, and for veterans to rest before Wednesday sessions. According to the Adjusted Games Lost Metric, the Rams ranked fifth among players in matches missed due to injuries in 2021†
The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t been so lucky. They have lost offensive tackle Riley Reiff, Akeem Davis-Gaither and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to end-of-season injuries. Not only has the talent stacked up against them, but they’ve been less fortunate in keeping their most talented starters available.
Featured players for both the Bengals and Rams have battled through a plethora of physical adversities that would keep the average person on the bench for an entire season. The Rams listed nine players in their injury report heading into the week, including two players who were recently activated from the injured reserve: Darrell Henderson rollback and defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day. Day will see his first game action since a week 7 chest injury.
In the backfield of the Rams, running back Cam Akers is the most prominent player recovering from injury this season. In July, Akers tore his right Achilles tendon. He returned in Week 18 after a truncated rehab from one of the most serious injuries an athlete can sustain. What would normally take about a year of recovery for a player in skill positions relying on quick movement and speed took just six months. A combination of blood flow restriction therapy and a surgical method specialized by Neal ElAttarche, who repaired Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tendon in 2013, got him back on the field in early January. Whether he’s crazy or stupid for putting his long-term health on the line playing a position that NFL teams run like socks (see: Todd Gurley) remains to be seen.
Andrew Whitworth of the Rams is a man who has seen players come and go over the years. Whitworth spent his offseason rehabilitating his left patellar tendon in South Cal with Dr. ElAttrache. It’s hard enough for any 300-pound lineman to keep those knee joints in shape after invasive surgery, but for a 40-year-old it’s an even bigger task.
ElAttrache also had another VIP patient: Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow. Fourteen months ago, Burrow slumped back into the bag, standing up, and lofting a pass under pressure. A diving Jonathan Allen slammed into his knee and left him writhing in pain, ending his rookie season with a torn ACL and MCL. Burrow was operated on by ElAttrache and rehabilitated alongside Whitworth in California. Even he has come a long way from the man who admittedly was traumatized by his knee injury and played out of the pocket halfway through training camp. Burrows’ recovery was an example of the physical and mental barriers that came with a comeback from injury.
Likewise, Bengal center Trey Hopkins suffered a torn ACL in Week 17 of last season but was a key cog in their title chase for a reconstructed knee. Due to his shortened recovery, Hopkins rested for Wednesday’s practice. However, he was also one of the weak points in an already porous offensive front.
In the first half of the AFC Championship Game against Kansas City, Bengals tight end CJ Uzomah sprained his MCL but is reportedly free to play. The most recent example of a leading pass-catcher to stumble through the NFL final in recent memory was Terrell Owens in Super Bowl XXXIX. He played 62 snaps, caught nine passes and won 122 yards that day. Whether Uzomah has that kind of feat in his bones remains to be seen, but his presence will be a huge boon to a Bengals attack that relies heavily on him in the red zone.
The physicality of the game cannot be escaped. However, masking the pain and delaying much-needed surgery for another week can often make all the difference. One of these wounded warriors could be the hero.