The Thread: Pain is a cruel NFL reality

Hall of Fame Weekend is always a reminder of the toll this game takes. Plus, what's next for Josh Allen after signing his mega deal?

Hall of Fame Weekend has become quite the television spectacle, a beautiful way to kick off the football season. Chances are, you flipped on over to the festivities in Canton at some point.

The speeches were moving. Those bronze busts were freakishly lifelike.

Highlights looped on a big screen. Chris Berman emceed as only Chris Berman can. Cameras even panned to a smiling Tom Brady as Peyton Manning cracked joke after joke.

What a celebration this was.

The only bummer was that inductees were told to keep their speeches to eight minutes because Manning could’ve captivated the audience all night long. He began by “thanking” the likes of Ray Lewis for rambling on forever, thus forcing him to hurry through his speech and he ended with a powerful message on the future of football.

Manning sure sounded like a future commissioner.

“When we leave this stage tonight, it is no longer about us,” Manning said. “It is about cultivating the game that has given so much to us. It’s about nurturing football to live and thrive another day, another year, another decade, another generation. It’s about guaranteeing that kids everywhere can learn, bond, grow and have fun with every flag pulled, every tackle made, every pass thrown, every run, block, sack and touchdown scored.

“The audience here tonight is made up of diehard fans who feel football deep in your bones. Now, we may have ignited the fire. But you have fanned the flames, and inevitably those flames will be whipped by the winds of change, but they don’t need to smolder. The future of this game is ours to shape. We just need to take tomorrow on our shoulders as readily as we donned our pads before each game. Let this moment become a cherished memory, and then remember, a legacy is only worthwhile when there’s a future to fuel.

“God bless you and God bless football.”

Those words had to be music to the ears of every NFL owner.

This all is one way to consume Hall of Fame Weekend.

In-person? It’s quite different. Those ESPN and NFL Network cameras aren’t going to pan to another sight that’s too raw, too real, too sobering. A sight bound to stir a much different emotion deep inside the “bones” of football fans. Go Long didn’t trek down to Canton for this year’s induction ceremony but I’ve been there years past and… man. Anyone who’s spent this weekend in Canton will tell you it’s hard to see the players who made pro football what it is today. Sitting in the hotel lobby one summer, I caught up with the likes of Harry Carson and Joe DeLamielleure for this story at the Buffalo News and it was hard for us to see players from their eras walk in and walk out.

Many are hunched over and struggle to move. Others struggle to speak. Others need assistance from their wives, their kids.

Play this sport long enough and you just may become a 50-year-old going on 80.

So as the speeches continued Sunday night, I just couldn’t shake that memory. Because what’s the solution? Unless the sport completely atrophies into flag football or touch, its retirees will always be left battered and beaten. Players only get bigger, stronger, faster. Nowadays, 250-pounds sprint and hit with 4.4 speed. They’re not shoemakers in the offseason. A lifetime of pain is a near-guarantee.

There’s no simple answer for such pain.

Every year, new ideas bubble to the surface.

This offseason, the NFLPA sent a memo to all players urging them to limit Toradol use which sure feels like an impossibility. Football’s drug of choice has masked pain for years. For years, as a shot. Now, as a pill. Of course, Toradol is only a temporary fix that creates problems down the road. It gets you through that week’s game, wears off and you feel like hell all over again without seriously dealing with the injury at hand. I suppose it’s a good thing that the days of team trainers handing out pills like candy on the team flight home are gradually fading. And it’s a good thing that players are being told that Toradol can cause major internal bleeding.

But what’s the alternative?  

This isn’t basketball. This isn’t baseball. This sport will forever inflict a level of pain others do not.

Toradol might carry worrisome side effects but the NFL’s dirty little secret has also been a necessary evil. All meds that numb pain are a reason why a weekend like this even exists in Canton because something has to keep players on the field. And if guys aren’t taking Toradol? They’ll simply move on to something else. While reporting on that Bleacher Report story linked above, one longtime NFL vet told me his team would prescribe extremely heavy doses of Ibuprofen. Sometimes, players would combine Ibuprofen with Toradol to the point of needing their liver and kidneys tested by the team late into the season.

Another vet has actually seen players sell painkillers to other players who, then, can become easily addicted. (“It can be a mess,” he said.)

And one longtime AFC lineman began by assuring that times are, indeed, changing for the better. Toradol use has actually been on the decline since former players like Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher have revealed to the public just how rampant the drug is in the league. In the past, this lineman said, “it was like the Wild West.”

“I’ve hurt myself and they’d be shoving pills in my mouth while they’re taping my ankle,” the player said. “That was the culture. The culture was ‘We’re going to play no matter what. You might as well make yourself comfortable.’ I think it’s more controlled on the club end and the team doctor side of things. And I think guys are more informed. Guys are reading these horror stories and we have such an opioid epidemic going on in America that guys are concerned. Doctors are not writing out as many scripts. Teams are really not handing that stuff out anymore.”

This lineman then noted that players simply take other forms of pain relief to stay on the field.

He downs other forms of ultra-strong antiflammatories to stay on the field.

He, too, has seen players exchanging painkillers behind the scenes.

If a player’s reliant on something — and can’t get a prescription himself — it’s still easy for that player to get their fix.

“You’ll know when someone gets hurt, they’ll be texting or calling, ‘You just had surgery. Can I get some Percocets?’” this longtime veteran said. “I’ve been on teams where I heard team trainers would just give out pills. They had huge amounts of pills stashed at the facility and they were handing out Vicodin and Percocets and stuff like that without any doctors’ orders.”

Pills aren’t being popped as much but make no mistake… it’s happening. Players know that missing one game could cost them their job, their livelihoods. They often feel like they have no choice but to numb the pain to stay in the lineup.

One injury and a guy like Brady might just take your spot forever.

Thus, maybe the most interesting speech Sunday night came from Calvin Johnson. His theme was “pain.” Johnson revealed that he played most of his sterling career with a back injury and, then, touched on the cannabis business he and former teammate Rob Sims created. Their company, Primitiv, is studying the effects of cannabis on chronic pain.

"There's so many people living in our world with pain right now and I want to speak to you for a moment," Johnson said in his Hall speech. "I want you to know that I see you, that you matter, and fight and do your best to make it through and never give in to the pain."

The league is beginning to change its stance on marijuana. Who knows? Something that has gotten players suspended in the past might end up replacing pain pills. Even then, however, the veteran lineman I spoke with went out of his way to slam this theory in saying that he’s seen marijuana use ruin the careers of countless players. He said pot damaged his own career.

You get the point. There is no clear-cut solution.

However you slice it, the game’s pain isn’t going anywhere. With millions of dollars at stake, players are going to do what they can to play on. And there will be repercussions later in life. That bad back. That ankle. That shoulder. You’re only making it worse by guzzling Ibuprofens and gutting it out. Away from the cameras, Canton will continue to be a tough sight.

But one great place to start? The league itself living in reality. Own the violence. Own the pros and cons of this sport. Stop pretending it’s “safe.” Leave it up to players to make their own decisions. In that sense, explaining what Toradol can do to you is a smart move by the union.

Manning isn’t wrong to sing the virtues of this sport. He is 100 percent right.

And this is true, too: Many of those same Hall of Famers limping through that hotel lobby will tell you they’d do it all over again.

What’s next for Josh Allen?

Honestly, the Buffalo Bills did not have much of a choice. After wandering in the quarterback wilderness for two decades, the franchise had to meet the market and pay up for Josh Allen.

Whew, did they pay, too.

This is a six-year extension with a base value of $258 million ($43M per year) and a max value of $288 million ($48M per year). Pro Football Talk published the nitty-gritty details on the contract this morning, comparing it to the deal that Patrick Mahomes signed in Kansas City one year ago. As noted, Allen gets a lot more cash than Mahomes early on with Mahomes eventually catching up. The difference in the two contracts, in total, are the final four years of Mahomes’ deal when he’ll average $48.075M per season… but who even knows what the QB market will look like then?

Both quarterbacks may get another ripe bite of the apple.

Now, the Bills bank on Allen’s arrow continuing to point up. From high school to Wyoming to the NFL, a phenomenal work ethic has fueled Allen’s rise. The No. 1 reason he earned this deal was that he was able to improve a trait that most of us all believed to be innate: Accuracy. In finishing No. 2 in the MVP voting, Allen brought Buffalo within one game of the Super Bowl.

Of course the one fear would be that Allen’s 2020 season was an aberration. Before him, the likes of Carson Wentz (2017) and Derek Carr (2016) were MVP frontrunners into December. They, too, seemed unstoppable. They, too, cashed in. Neither has been able to recapture their magic since.

Here’s thinking that Allen performs at an elite level again in 2021. That work ethic combined with his supporting cast in Buffalo is tough to bet against. With Brian Daboll and Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley around, it’s hard to imagine this Bills offense regressing much at all. And it’s hard to imagine a quarterback who’s worked so, so hard his whole life getting stagnant. By all accounts, he’s been tearing up training camp.

One fact, however, is also crystal clear: Simply winning the division is not enough anymore. No, the Chiefs are the bar. Mahomes is the bar. With this kind of contract, the expectation in Buffalo is to beat the Chiefs and reach the Super Bowl.

Buffalo paid Josh Allen to beat Patrick Mahomes.

You know, the quarterback the team’s owner originally wanted.

The Raiders are a disaster

Players keep retiring. Execs keep resigning. What a tire fire the Jon Gruden Regime continues to be in Las Vegas.

This sure does not appear to be an organization firing on any cylinders as the 2021 season rapidly approaches. The latest? Former Raiders defensive end Arden Key admitting to the 49ers media he “wanted to get out of there.” Both Key and Maurice Hurst were released by the Raiders last April, landed in San Francisco and Key sure didn’t hold back.

“I’ve been wanting to get out of there,” Key said via KNBR. “I wasn’t surprised. I was more happy than surprised. I wish it happened a little earlier but, hey, I got what I wanted and I’m good.”

Of course, this falls right in line with how Lynn Bowden Jr. described life in Vegas to Go Long.

Both Gruden and GM Mike Mayock are out of touch with players today and, frankly, this was all easily avoidable. The 10-year contract given to Gruden was slammed by just about everyone from Day 1 and all the Monday Night Football color commentator has done since is run two premier talents out of town (Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper), whiff on aging vets (like Jordy Nelson) and draft miserably.

In a division with Mahomes and Justin Herbert, there’s no hope on the horizon.

No Huddle

  • Social media never really does capture the essence of the thing, does it? On last week’s podcast, analyst John Middlekauff noted that we all need to look beyond the 10-second clips of Lions coach Dan Campbell. If he’s not biting kneecaps, he’s drinking an insane amount of coffee. Turns out, though, Middlekauff is right. Listen back to his pressers in full and Campbell is far more articulate and insightful than you’d think. Detroit probably isn’t going to win much at all this season — the roster’s undergoing a total reset — but Campbell may be the right man for the job. His honesty is refreshing.

  • Who’ll blink next at QB — Cleveland or Baltimore? Asked if he wants an extension before the start of the 2021 season, Baker Mayfield said he doesn’t give a damn. While the Browns may want to see Mayfield perform one more year before doling out a deal anywhere near Allen’s deal, I can’t see them waiting too long. Like the Bills, they’ve lived the dark side at QB. Count on Jackson getting his new deal, too.

  • Ahead of camp, we examined the curious case of Tua Tagovailoa. Now that the Dolphins have seen him for two weeks of training camp, what’s the word? Cautious optimism is the theme in South Florida. Tagovailoa has been taking many more shots downfield which is a must after dinking and dunking his entire rookie season. NFL.com’s Judy Battista caught up with Tagovailoa and he sounds a lot more confident. We’ll see. Nobody should ever read into exhibition football too deeply but this Miami/Chicago game Saturday ought to be interesting. The Dolphins will want to see Tagovailoa — a full year removed from that catastrophic injury — move and throw like a completely different QB.

  • Can the Colts stay afloat as Carson Wentz recovers from foot surgery? This is a roster built to win now and Jacob Eason hasn’t done much to quell fears in practice. I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button… yet. Sure, the schedule’s brutal. Indy starts with the Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins and Ravens. An 0-5 start is a real possibility. But Jonathan Taylor was arguably the second-best back in the NFL down the stretch last season — he detailed how the lightbulbs all turned on then — and this defense is still loaded. The Colts could squeeze out a win or two without Wentz.

  • Miss the Friday night Happy Hour with former Packers safety LeRoy Butler? You can watch the full replay right here. He didn’t disappoint. Thank you to everyone who joined.

Share Go Long with Tyler Dunne