By Sal Maiorana - Rochester D&C
Jairus Byrd took a lot of heat during the first five weeks of the season because he did not suit up to play for the Buffalo Bills.
The popular theory was that he wasn't really hurt, and that he was staging a protest against management because it did not present a suitable long-term contract offer in the offseason and instead used its franchise tag on him.
That, of course, is ridiculous. Like sitting out was going to help him get the contract he feels he deserves from the Bills, or some other team, next year when he's up for free agency again.
Byrd was dealing with plantar fasciitis, and if you've ever had that malady, you know how painful it can be just to walk around in your everyday life - let alone play football.
Byrd knew he wasn't ready to play, knew he wouldn't be able to do what the Bills need him to do in the back end of their defense, and so - bucking blockheaded NFL tradition - rather than potentially hurt the team, he sat out until he was ready.
I wish running back C.J. Spiller and cornerback Stephon Gilmore had done the same thing.
Spiller suffered a sprained ankle in the Week 4 victory over Baltimore, and in trying to play the last three weeks, he's been a shell of the player everyone knows he can be. Gilmore had wrist surgery late in the preseason and, like Byrd, missed the first five games of the regular season. Unlike Byrd, Gilmore rushed back before he was ready, opting to play with a cast on his left hand. It has turned him into an ineffective one-armed player.
In the NFL, playing in pain is a badge of honor and just about every player in the league - especially now that we're approaching the halfway point of the regular season - does it. But playing with an injury is foolhardy. There's a big difference between the two, and wouldn't it be nice if the team owners, doctors, trainers, coaches and yes, the players, knew where that fine line was?
It's like they give players free Marriott points if they ignore whatever is ailing them to get out there on the field, and the worse the injury, the more points they get.
Right now, Spiller and Gilmore are not helping the Bills. In fact, they're hurting the Bills.
Spiller is almost completely devoid of the explosiveness and elusiveness that is so important to his game. He is not a meat-and-potatoes, three-yards-and-a-carpet-burn kind of running back. He needs to make sharp cuts and use his speed to break into the second level of the defense and beyond, and on that balky ankle, he can't do it.
In Cleveland, on a Thursday night when he had only a few days to rest after he'd hurt his ankle against Baltimore, Spiller was on the field for just 13 of 75 offensive snaps.
With 10 days until the Cincinnati game, Spiller did all he could in terms of treatment and rest, and he said he was feeling much better. But he was only able to play 17 of 69 snaps. And then in Sunday's victory over Miami, Spiller played 14 of 66 snaps.
Spiller had one of the worst games of his career against the Dolphins. He carried six times for 11 yards, and caught three passes for minus-4 yards. That's seven yards on nine touches.
In the last three games, he has 24 carries for 132 yards, with more than a third of the yards coming on one play, a 54-yard TD run against Cleveland that not only has skewed the stats but seems to have provided false hope. Spiller also has five catches for a mere seven yards.
Call me crazy, but Tashard Choice - who's one of the best third-string running backs in the league - could likely give the Bills more. And the dual benefit of using Choice and sitting Spiller would be that Spiller could get the rest he needs, which might enable him to return in two or three weeks ready to roll.
Instead, Doug Marrone said Monday, "There's going to be a setback when you play the game, he's not going to come out of there 110 percent. We're looking at the production, seeing if he's getting better and not putting him out there in jeopardy. Yes, him being out there, he can produce. You look at the run against Cleveland, the run even the other day that he bounces outside and takes it up the sideline. Not very many people can do that. That's the one thing we're trying to balance the whole time."
As for Gilmore, obviously he was eager to get back on the field, and because he doesn't have a leg injury, the thought was that he could still use his speed and athleticism to cover. However, Gilmore is at his best at the line in press coverage, being physical with receivers. He can't do that with one hand encased in a cast, he can't get off blocks the way he normally does, and he can't tackle with the same vigor.
With all the attention being focused on concussions, the NFL gives the illusion that it's serious about its effort and desire to protect players.
But it can't be all about concussions. The next step needs to be about changing the culture of the NFL, and not allowing players on the field who are clearly compromised by injury. Until team doctors and trainers stand up to owners, coaches and players and not allow injured players like Spiller and Gilmore on the field, players are going to keep playing with injuries, and eventually, will get injured even more.