Few things are harder for an NFL franchise to swallow than the occurrence of a potentially season-changing injury during a meaningless preseason game. The Green Bay Packers are the latest team dealing with that reality after star wide receiver Jordy Nelsonreportedly tore his ACL Sunday vs. the Steelers.
Assuming that injury is confirmed by an MRI, Nelson would miss the entirety of the 2015 season.
Green Bay does have a deep group at wide receiver, but there is no underestimating what a loss Nelson stands to be. The 30-year-old has emerged as a bona fide top-10 overall receiver in the league, pacing the Packers' pass-catchers in targets, receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns each of the past two seasons.
Last season, Aaron Rodgers threw Nelson's way 151 times, a number that placed Nelson behind only Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones among the league's most-targeted receivers. Nelson has proven to be a perfect complement to Rodgers's unique and amazing skill set—he thrives at the difficult catch and in finding space when Rodgers has to improvise from the pocket.
Nelson's injury has to leave the Packers feeling even more thankful they managed to re-sign Randall Cobb this off-season. He will need help, though, to carry the passing attack. It will have to come from a bevy of youngsters: 2014 second-round pick Davante Adams, rookie Ty Montgomery and 2014 seventh-rounder Jeff Janis are the main candidates.
Of them, Adams no doubt will be elevated into a larger role. The Fresno State product received praise from coach Mike McCarthy through OTAs and camp, and he showed flashes of brilliance as the Packers' No. 3 receiver last season, catching 38 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns.
The Packers also could opt to lean on their rushing attack led by Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 1,139 yards last season.
Unfortunately, no matter how the Packers attack sans Nelson, the reality is that this leaves them scrambling mere weeks before the regular season begins. If they struggle in any way to cover for Nelson's absence, the NFC scales could tip even further toward Seattle. And though none of Green Bay's rivals would root for a major injury, the rest of the NFC North could see an opportunity to pounce.
This is the second division race that could be impacted in significant fashion by an injury this week. The defending NFC South champion Panthers lost receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a knee injury of his own during a joint practice, then saw projected starting DE Frank Alexander tear his Achilles in an exhibition game Saturday.
Benjamin's setback was a reminder (if one was required) that fluke injuries can occur even outside of game action. Nelson, like Benjamin, dropped without even so much as making contact with a Pittsburgh defender; his knee simply gave out when he tried to make a cut.
Would shortening or eliminating the preseason help keep NFL players healthier? Probably, though less games would lead to more of those shared practice sessions between teams, in which contact is encouraged. Wiping out the entire preseason schedule also would send players into the regular season rusty, perhaps even somewhat out of shape. College football does manage to pull it off—teams are thrown right into the fray come September. But the NFL features another level of physicality.
There are no easy answers here.
Just about all outsiders would agree that the preseason extends far too long, with the obvious reasoning behind the four-game schedule being that each team then can host—and charge for—two games. The game action does help teams whittle down their rosters from the off-season limit of 90 to the regular-season mark of 53, but could a two-game preseason serve the same purpose? Could coaching staffs make those tough roster decisions without any exhibition games?
It's all irrelevant, at least for now. The NFL has shown no real interest in tweaking the preseason format, not with season-ticket holders still required to pay for their seats and TV ratings high.
Any changes would not help the Packers in 2015, anyway. They have three weeks to figure out how to keep their offense rolling without their go-to receiver. Nelson often gets overlooked in discussion of the NFL's best wideouts, but that's a mistake. He has been a true No. 1 receiver, a playmaker worthy of Aaron Rodgers's trust.
His injury puts the Packers in a hole, regardless of how confident they are in their remaining weapons.