No matter how many hours we watch every Sunday, we never become numb.
Hearts dropped Sunday, as J.K. Dobbins limped into the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium, needing the assistance of a trainer at each arm. The Ravens went on to beat the Texans 25-9 in the season opener, but at a terrible cost.
Dobbins tore his Achilles tendon, a devastating injury for any athlete but especially a running back. His season, at minimum, is over. Linebacker Patrick Queen, a 2020 draft classmate of Dobbins, held back tears, but his voice cracked with emotion.
“It’s just tough,” Queen said. “I just ask everybody to pray for him.”
Earlier in the day, Dobbins was soaring. The 24-year-old claimed the first touchdown of the season on a first-quarter run that he finished by leaping with an outstretched arm — a moment of gusto that fans have wanted so badly for a player that’s been through so much already since entering the league in 2020.
Those picturesque highlights are why Dobbins wanted a new contract this summer, with his current deal set to expire at season’s end.
The risk of injury, unfortunately, is also why he wanted a new contract — and why running backs across the NFL have found teams so unwilling to pay big sums for what used to be a glamour position.
It’s cruel that Dobbins has come to understand so early in his career that the NFL churns through bodies like grist. Freak injuries are part of its callous tribute. It was during the 2021 preseason that his left knee was obliterated by a helmet, the first major injury of his pro career that took him a season and a half to recover from.
Working all the way back from that injury just to get hurt again? Guard Kevin Zeitler called it a “gut punch.” Coach John Harbaugh said he was “crestfallen.” While the Ravens gladly took the win, Dobbins’ injury clearly flattened some of their enthusiasm.
Dobbins had to be fearful of history repeating itself to start the year, when he appeared to be “holding in” while hoping for a new contract. Neither the Ravens nor Dobbins ever truly tipped their hands, but there was tension as Dobbins missed minicamp and the start of training camp with nebulous health concerns. Teammate Melvin Gordon acknowledged Dobbins was sitting out early on.
When Dobbins finally came off the physically-unable-to-perform list in the middle of camp, he said he was simply being “cautious” with his health, and he and the Ravens downplayed the drama as much as possible. Calling general manager Eric DeCosta “the best GM in the game,” Dobbins assured reporters: “He’ll get it worked out; whatever happens happens. He’s going to get it worked out.”
But the stakes were always high. Even if Dobbins didn’t trumpet it, he had to know it. If he wanted to get paid, he couldn’t get hurt. Queen, who is experiencing contract angst himself at the undervalued middle linebacker position, acknowledged the injury was why Dobbins was agitating for a new deal.
“Stuff like that,” Queen said, “that’s why he went into the situation he went in.”
Even though Dobbins was missed in minicamp and the start of training camp, teammates understood what he was trying to do. Now in the final year of his contract, Dobbins’ limping reception from Lamar Jackson might be his final snap for the Ravens, and he’ll be hard-pressed to get paid after suffering two devastating injuries in the first four years of his career.
Dobbins started his career with a ton of promise, averaging 5.9 yards per rush. Even against the Texans, he clawed past the line of scrimmage on a short reception for a hard-fought 10 yards.
“He was getting off to a great start,” fellow running back Justice Hill said. “He was gonna have a great year.”
One stat that could haunt the Ravens: Jackson, Mark Andrews, Ronnie Stanley, Rashod Bateman and Dobbins have never gotten to play a regular-season snap when they were all fully healthy.
An Achilles injury is notorious for sapping athleticism, for making runners less speedy and explosive. While the Rams’ Cam Akers offers a somewhat hopeful model for a rusher finding his way back into the league after an Achilles injury, there are many more — Lendale White, Joe McKnight, Arian Foster — who never truly recovered.
Hill and Gus Edwards stand poised to inherit Dobbins’ workload (and Gordon may come off the practice squad), but they probably lack his upside. Dobbins once seemed like the next star Ravens rusher. More than that, he was beloved in the locker room.
“Great attitude. Great spirit,” Zeitler said. “One of the main souls of the team.”
Though the Ravens may have lost one of their biggest, brightest stars on the field, next week, Hill and Edwards will be taking snaps, as they did the last time Dobbins was hurt. The NFL will continue rolling on, with Dobbins frustratingly going through another long rehab assignment. Running backs will still bristle at their comparatively low wages, even though they risk so much. Dobbins’ injury likely only compounds the current apprehension, a frustrating outcome for the NFL’s rushers.
Football is often too casually compared to warfare, but one trait the two have in common is indifference to collateral damage. There is no sense of fairness or justice in who falls on the field.
The supremely talented are humbled. The unlucky are punished with even more bad fortune. And it doesn’t matter how many times we see the cycle: It always hurts.