Nick Collins injury: Safety not guaranteed
UPDATE: Collins announced his official retirement from the NFL on Aug. 19. We wish him all the best in whatever’s next.
It is weird to remember being there in Charlotte when Nick Collins’ career in the NFL stopped being a continuous thing. Until that happens, even with the obvious dangerousness of the game, careers are split into downs and quarters and games, the sometimes-forgettable monotony of all that, and it’s hard to always remember they can just stop, stop like the Green Bay Packers’ three-time Pro Bowl free safety had his stop on a third-and-9 on the Panthers’ first drive of the fourth quarter in an entertaining but otherwise unmemorable game in the middle of September, 2011.
That was the last play of his career to date. We were there in the steep upper deck of Bank of America Stadium, watched him go away on a stretcher, then watched the rest of the game. It was a win, so we celebrated and, a few days later, went home.
And, of course, we say to date above because Collins tweeted this week that he’s “ready for action” and “ready to dominate,” causing a stir amongst Packers fans and followers who still remember what we didn’t know we’d miss so much on the field when Collins underwent single spinal fusion surgery and was subsequently released by Green Bay, the organization essentially saying that if he were their son they’d never let him play football again.
They were not empty quotes at the time, nor are they now. There was a grim density to the entire situation when it became clear, the organization appearing to realize they’d just like that lost both an important and great player. The Packers should be credited for worrying about Collins’ safety in that way and were probably right to release him at the time. There didn’t seem to be another way to go.
It still haunts them. Speaking in March of 2013 at the league’s annual meetings, head coach Mike McCarthy said, “Nick’s a great player. That’s one (where), I don’t think (general manager) Ted (Thompson) will ever get over that one. That’s one we talk about quite often, but hey you have to move on. You’re talking about a guy that was probably in the middle of a Hall of Fame career.”
Collins, however, in speaking to ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde this week, says he’s healthy and ready to again take the great chance that comes with playing football at any time – but especially after already undergoing one surgery to the spine – and resume that career soaked in potential. But the question still remains: is there another way to go?
As Collins alludes to and knows better than most, sometimes careers just stop in the NFL. It is there on second-and-10 from the Green Bay 36-yard line and gone after a first down on third down moves the ball to the Carolina 23. 13 yards between free safety for the foreseeable future and an unfinished end. It’s stupid, really, though that doesn’t feel like the right word, here. But it is, isn’t it? 13 yards and done is as stupid a span of anything for something so important, so doggedly worked for and earned and then, at its pinnacle, conquered and branded with a memory no one forgets, a play that overshadows the rest of what he did but makes certain he’s never forgotten in Packers lore, for that to just stop, somewhere between someone else’s 40-and 20-yard lines. If it’s not stupid it’s a worse cousin of stupid. You get the idea.
Collins wants to come back, wants a team’s doctor to at least give him the chance of being evaluated. “I’ve been trying to get that opportunity for two years now and no one seems to want to take that chance. But I’m ready if anybody is willing. I guess it’s all about just getting the teams to understand the [idea] of me coming back,” Collins said in Wilde’s report. “They can bring me in, they can get their own doctors to look at me, they can do their own evaluation and we can go from there. If they say we can roll with it, I’ll take that chance.”
He’s been cleared as 100 percent healthy following the surgery; not NFL-healthy, but healthy and able to continue on with life. The life he wants, though, is the one that he had as recently as 2011 and doesn’t anymore because of that freak play that could’ve been, or could be, any play.
We could talk about how much the Packers miss him at safety; how, after deciding to release Charles Woodson prior to the 2013 season and extend Morgan Burnett’s contract, their current cast of safeties are arguably the most glaring weakness on the roster.
We could talk about Nick Collins and whatever he could bring, if he could and if doctors thought it even possible. We could talk about whether or not Collins should risk himself for the game of football again, and that’d be the worst option – unless you happen to be Nick Collins or a member of Nick Collins’ family or close circle of friends, whether or not he should doesn’t apply.
If it’s real and he’s going to seriously push the NFL for a chance – and it appears he’ll at least do his part in being available – and if the Packers decide to still pass because of their very real worries about his health, fine. If we’ve seen anything from the Packers as an organization this season and in the past, we know they are the types to save players, sometimes, from themselves, regardless of the circumstances. So there’s nothing surprising, even given their obvious need for improvement in the secondary, if the Packers pass. And that’s okay, and doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to improve. Their medical policies won’t change based on on-field need, and they shouldn’t.
We could talk about how, if the Packers reevaluated Collins and cleared him and it worked out, we’d obviously love to see it, how incredible an initial return that’d be. As far as his position on the field is concerned, Green Bay hasn’t come close to replacing what he brought – all the ball-hawking and physicality and awareness, the second nature ability to be somewhere at the right time.
We could talk about all that stuff when we talk about Nick Collins. We can talk about plugging him into the current defense and projecting the improvement as big and loudly as we want. At its core, most of it falls to this bottom line: we miss him, both watching him and his hovering presence over the defense, and we hate how it all just stopped for him. But then we naturally drift into the Football Possibilities of Collins back at free safety in Green Bay, and at that point, finally, all we keep landing on is the fact that he seemingly felt a lot during his time away from the game like we did at the time in Charlotte – anxious and hoping for a return and sad it happened.
But we’ve all been able to move forward and wonder how Green Bay will fix what they have, and Collins has still been there, wondering how and if he’ll ever get any of his football life back. He’s putting himself out there again now but none of this has gone away for him. We can’t imagine that, and hate it for him.
We could talk and talk, but we’ll hate it if this becomes just a small drip in the long guzzle of useless empty calories that is the NFL’s offseason. If it turns into something more substantive than a quick talking point to get from Tuesday to Wednesday that’d be great, that’s what we’re saying when we wish Nick Collins well, and hope he does get some of that football life back if he’s deemed healthy enough to play, by whomever. We hope that for as brutally as it ended (again: to date), in-between something as malapropos-sounding as 13 yards, whatever amounts of this comeback attempt goes as perfectly as possible, and maybe longer than something as small as a few days.