It got lost in all the folderol about Peyton Manning's neck surgeries, but Manning wasn't the only high-profile NFL player whose season -- and career -- was placed in jeopardy by a hit that affected his neck and forced a spinal fusion procedure. Green Bay Packers safety Nick Collins was lost for the 2011 season when he tried to tackle Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart in Green Bay's 30-23 Week 2 win.
Stewart went to the left on a swing pass, and Collins remained on the field after the play was over with a neck injury. Collins had spinal fusion surgery similar to Manning's, and his absence in the Packers' secondary was keenly felt -- without his deep pass coverage as a given, Charles Woodson wasn't as versatile in his slot/safety roles, and Green Bay's defense downturned severely, especially against the pass.
Now, Collins is trying to take the same steps back to the NFL that Manning has taken. He's not switching teams as Manning did, but there's still a lot of uncertainty regarding his return. Recently, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said that "If Nick was my son, I would not let him play."
"That's probably one of the worst parts of your job [as a coach], walking out on the field, looking over a player — especially when it didn't look very serious, and then you get out there …" McCarthy elaborated. "I don't want to be put in that position again. And this is not about me. I'm just talking about, if that was my son, if Nick was my son, I would not let him play."
At the owners meetings, McCarthy talked a bit more about the process of Collins' recovery, and the responsibility held by the team's medical staff. Collins is incredibly valuable to the team, but as was discussed during the debate over Manning's future and his release from the Indianapolis Colts, there is supposed to be a higher obligation to the player as a person. Had that obligation always been held correctly, there wouldn't be over 1,000 former NFL players ready to be called as plaintiffs in upcoming class-action lawsuits against the league.
McCarthy seems to understand the duality.
"It's a healthy situation," he said on Wednesday. "To have Nick back would be huge just from a player personnel standpoint because anytime someone suffers an injury like that it's not hard to think that he's [not] going to come back. If Nick's able to come back, that's a great boost for us, but the personal side of it is the concern. It's an injury that -- hopefully the surgery has worked and everything's back in place. But once again you're talking about a risk assessment, that makes me a little nervous.
"I think everybody needs to sit down and make sure we move forward together. To have Nick Collins back on the practice field and playing games would be huge, but this is more than football. Nick's a family man, he's a father, that's no fun standing over someone like that. I don't think any coach wants to see one of their players go through that.
"I think that's a starting point," McCarthy said of any positive medical evaluation. "I would think the doctors are going to say, I anticipate that he's going to say it's a very positive report because I know they felt good about the surgery. To me, that's really the first step. Then our doctors have to get involved and we'll all sit down and talk to Nick and see where Nick is, so it will be a process that we'll go through."
Would McCarthy be prepared to tell Collins that it's a "no-go" with the Packers, based on future health concerns? "I need the information. It will be based on the information, but he'll be part of that."
I asked SI.com's Will Carroll, the foremost sports injury expert in the country, about the similarities between Manning's and Collins' surgeries, and the outlook for Collins.
The difference between the fusion that was necessary for Nick Collins and the one that Peyton Manning had isn't the surgery itself, but why it was necessary. Manning's neck problem was a chronic one with an onset that surgeons would call "insidious." The herniation had a causative event, but it was controllable for a while, getting progressively worse. For Collins, the disc was injured in a traumatic fashion, causing pain and instability that had to be fixed immediately. The operation itself, the techniques and hardware used, and the result, will be largely the same.
The other difference with Collins is that his fusion was higher on the spine, at the C3/4 level, as compared to Manning's. Again, this won't change the surgery or techniques. It just reminds us how scary Collins' injury was. C4 cervical nerve damage comes with a mnemonic device for learning function: "Cut C4, breathe no more." Of course, for Manning, the C5 nerve that was impinged is almost as important - it controls the arms.
Collins will soon undergo the tests that will determine his NFL future to a degree. It would be great if Collins' NFL career could continue for years, but the real hope is that the best and wisest decision will be made. Judging from McCarthy's comments, Nick Collins is in good hands, and that's encouraging for his future even if he never plays football again.
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