Sports

A ridiculous number of people got to play in the NFL this year

Pooka Williams had his moment in the sun.

Pooka Williams had his moment in the sun.
Illustration: Getty Images

Tuf Borland, Mac McCain, Luther Kirk, Paul Quessenberry, and Pooka Williams all joined an elite group this year. Not many people can say that they have played in an NFL game, but these five men all did exactly that this season.

It doesn’t matter if it was only one game each, and it doesn’t matter if any of them ever suits up again. Every single one of them has reached the top level of the sport and played in a regular-season game. There’s no taking that away from them. It’s an achievement to be celebrated.

These five men also are part of a story whose full impact on the NFL is difficult to process on a week-to-week basis. As the league has muddled its way through a second pandemic season, one in which they thought they had things under control until they didn’t, there have been more opportunities than ever for new athletes to earn the distinction of playing in the NFL.

In 2011, there were 1,931 players who took part in an NFL game, according to Stathead. The next year, there were 1,951, before going back to 1,931 in 2013. Since then, the number has risen every year… by 24, then by 12, 18, 14, 11, and 5, to a 2019 total of 2,025 players. Given the trend toward exercising more caution with injuries, this is what you’d expect to see, a moderate rise. The average team, over a span of nine years, started using three additional players per season.

Then came 2020, and a huge jump to 2,193 players appearing in NFL games. Again, that makes sense. The pandemic hit, vaccines were not widely available, and even with the more stringent precautions that were in place before players could get their shots, there were going to be outbreaks — and there were.

We’ve now reached the 16-game mark of this season, matching past years’ schedules, and the number of players who have been on an NFL field stands at 2,291. That’s a four percent rise over last year, when the normal annual increase for the last decade has been less than one percent.

The Borlands, McCains, Kirks, Quessenberrys, and Williamses of the league are the silver linings to a season in which, despite vaccinations being available, the impact of COVID-19 on the NFL has actually been greater. Just because there wasn’t a ludicrous scenario this year (like the Denver Broncos having to play a game without a quarterback), doesn’t mean things have gotten better.

Borland et al. are just five of 179 players who have appeared in exactly one game this season. Again, that’s a huge jump from last year’s figure of 149, which itself was unprecedented. From 2011-19, the number of players to appear in one game in a season ranged from 73 to 109.

It might be harder to notice because, outside of Week 15, the NFL hasn’t really had to juggle its schedule as a result of COVID this season. Thanks to the vaccine, the increased case counts have not meant panic the same way any appearance of the virus did in 2020. What there has been is measurably more damage to rosters, and teams having to dig deeper into the available talent pool to find folks to play on Sundays.

That’s a good thing for the men who have gotten to fulfill their dreams of playing in the NFL. It’s significantly less good for everyone who has gotten COVID and will now have to hope that they don’t develop post-viral conditions down the road because the NFL, like the rest of America’s decision-makers, collectively stopped trying to beat the virus, but live with it, so long as the money machine goes brrrr.

The NFL will wrap up its season this weekend having gotten through all the games, with fans in the stands and who knows how many more people infected as a result of that, and an on-field product that’s been weakened by having to grind through more than a hundred extra bodies. All the checks will clear, so it’s a success.

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