In a league dominated by brutal injuries, NFL players have to be replaceable. Lost a step? Next man up. Nearly lost a leg? Next man up. Concussion? Next man up, now that we treat players for them.
But the pandemic has laid bare that NFL-level players are not quite as disposable as the league wants them to be. In order to tamp down on potential outbreaks, the league has implemented a relatively strict surveillance regime that has knocked out whole position groups for several teams, with disastrous results. When the next man up can’t throw, catch or block, the whole thing falls apart.
“Next man up” has always been a curious fit with the NFL. It would make some sense in a sport with a fully functioning minor league system, or even a single developmental league. Instead, as the league’s pandemic plan has accidentally proved, when NFL rosters get thin, there’s nowhere to go.