Thursday night the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers 33-21 without quarterback Carson Palmer. According to Jim Nantz during the broadcast, Palmer would have been healthy enough to play if the game were on Sunday instead of Thursday. As of this writing it is not clear yet if Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton will be allowed to play before Monday night’s matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Charlotte, or even if there will game be a game for Newton to miss this week at all depending on the status of relief efforts and other safety issues involving the landfall of Hurricane Matthew.
Either way, the fact that the quarterbacks for both these NFC contenders are in the concussion protocol stands in contrast to the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, who has never been diagnosed with a concussion as a professional—or ever missed a start or practice for any other injury. Indeed, the NFC is rife with top teams that lost their intended signal-caller for one reason or another—even if the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys aren’t struggling the way the Panthers and Cardinals have so far in 2016, the losses of Teddy Bridgewater and Tony Romo, respectively, have taken their toll.
Minnesota had to trade future first- and fourth-round picks for Bradford, which will be costly to the team’s efforts to sustain success even if Bradford continues to fill in adequately this year or beyond. The Cowboys have to pay money and use a roster spot on Mark Sanchez while waiting to determine when Romo can come back, and with games upcoming against the Bengals, Packers, Eagles and Steelers, their outlook in the interim may not match Dallas’s current 3-1 record.
Meanwhile, Wilson remains a stalwart in Seattle’s lineup, despite longstanding projections that his scrambling, freelancing style and diminutive stature would render him susceptible to blows and injuries and eventually straiten his versatility or cut short his career altogether. Wilson did get hurt this year, but it hasn’t cost him any starts and after the current bye week the Seahawks expect him to be operating near full strength—a remarkable recovery from knee and ankle sprains credited to Wilson’s intense rehabilitation procedures and his offseason strength and flexibility training, plus a valorous will to play through pain and limited movement.
You can’t fault Palmer or Newton for not “toughing it out” and playing through concussions, obviously. Head injuries are no joke, and they are forbidden to make that choice under current league rules anyway. But the fact remains that Wilson’s supposedly-reckless freelancing has never exposed him to any concussions ever, as far as we know, as a professional.
A few weeks ago it appeared that Wilson’s string of luck and availability might run out. Based on the example of decades of wounded NFL quarterbacks, not to mention Seattle’s famously permeable offensive line, it would have been reasonable to imagine Wilson’s 2016 turning into a lost season of limping and lingering ailments. Instead, as he emerges out of those challenges fairly scot-free, he can put his hand to his brow and survey the league landscape to see that he still stands basically alone as resilient to the quarterback infirmary.
Take a look yourself: In addition to Bridgewater, Romo, Palmer, and Newton right now, there’s Aaron Rodgers who missed seven weeks in 2013 with a splintered collarbone, submarining the Green Bay Packers’ shot at a first-round bye and exposing them to the best wild-card team the San Francisco 49ers. A year later, Rodgers’ pulled calf muscle hampered his movement late in his MVP season, a factor the Ringer’s Kevin Clark reminds us was a prime reason the Packers weren’t able to press their early lead against Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship game. Has Rodgers even ever fully recovered from that problem?
Andrew Luck has been bombarded by health issues the past few years—not necessarily a fault of his own given his franchise’s disastrous stewardship, but still his much bigger body was supposed to withstand the hits better than Wilson’s smaller frame. For that matter, Kirk Cousins is not a very good quarterback and the reason Washington is stuck paying him franchise-tag dollars is because Luck’s and Wilson’s 2012 draft-mate Robert Griffin was unable to stay healthy.
The Los Angeles Rams are 2016’s surprise darling early on, but part of the reason they weren’t able to capitalize the past four years on their draft haul from the Griffin trade was that Bradford kept getting hurt—and the fallout from that quarterback crater led L.A. to throw away its future this year to nab Jared Goff. To find out if Goff is even worth it, Rams fans are out there hoping Case Keenum gets hurt
Ben Roethlisberger has spent 22 weeks on the injury report in the last three years. Joe Flacco tore up his knee in 2015. Colin Kaepernick had season-ending surgery in November and hasn’t started a game since.
Even though Palmer is poised to be back soon, he’s 36 years old and chronically brittle. In 2014 Palmer missed a game and was questionable in four others with nerve damage in his shoulder before going on injured reserve with his second ACL injury.
About the only quarterbacks of any sample size and consequence during Russell Wilson’s career who have shown Wilson’s level of durability are the ones cast as least predilected toward the type of out-of-pocket hazards Wilson is expected to endure: Drew Brees and Tom Brady (it’s now nearly 10 years since Brady lost one season to his own ruptured ACL). There’s no guarantee Wilson doesn’t get stomped on by Markus Golden two weeks from Sunday and join Palmer and Newton on the sideline; even if he stays whole, he’ll surely eventually develop small pains like the bum plantar fascia and sore shoulder that Brees suffered through last year—his 15th NFL season.
But for now, with Wilson rounding back into health while so much of the rest of the league suffers, he joins Brady and Brees in yet another category where those once-doubted Hall of Famers proved everybody wrong. As if Wilson had anything else to prove.