You would be hard-pressed to describe Devonta Freeman as anything but an inspiring athlete. He turned a quiet rookie season as a fourth rounder into a stellar career with the Falcons, he’s genuinely one of the league’s best young backs, and he is by all accounts just a good person.
Knowing all that, I’m not going to come here and criticize Freeman’s choice to play through injuries last year. I am, however, going to say that I don’t think it was a good idea.
In an interview with 11Alive.com, Freeman admitted he pushed through concussions and a PCL and MCL sprain in his knee. We don’t know exactly how long he did so, but he said in the interview that he wanted and needed to push through the injuries. That’s admirable on its face, but again, not a good idea.
The Atlanta Falcons running back is now willing to admit that he spent a good portion of last season injured. On top of two concussions in the last calendar year, Freeman had a PCL and MCL sprain in his right knee that he played through as the Falcons battled through the postseason. The Falcons fell in the NFC Divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Freeman said the ‘Brotherhood’ was the reason he felt like he needed to play while injured. There’s a saying in the NFL that everyone is always hurt, especially later in the season.
Freeman wanted to be one of those guys putting everything on the line. He didn’t want to let his team down.
I don’t know, at the end of the day, exactly how much the Falcons knew about Freeman’s injuries. I don’t know if he was pushed to play, though I suspect given his competitive nature and prominent role on the team that he simply wanted to. I do know that Free did not look like the same back over the last four games (two regular season, two postseason) as we’ve come to expect, as these game logs indicate.
Week 16, Saints: 11 carries, 36 yards, 3.3 yards per carry; 2 receptions, 20 yards
Week 17, Panthers: 11 carries, 23 yards, 2.1 yards per carry; 9 receptions, 85 yards, 1 touchdown
Wild Card Round, Rams: 18 carries, 66 yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 1 touchdown; 1 reception, 3 yards
Divisional Round, Eagles: 10 carries, 7 yards, 0.7 yards per carry; 5 receptions, 26 yards, 1 touchdown
Freeman’s receiving totals rescued some of those games, but he noticeably scuffled on the ground in all four games, culminating in that effort against the Eagles where he simply could not get anything going. Tevin Coleman was not any better on the ground in any of those three first games on the list, but crucially he had 10 carries for 79 yards against the Eagles, making the decision to split carries between the two look baffling in hindsight. Of course, there were a lot of baffling decisions during that game, so that one was just sort of added to the pile at the time.
It’s water under the bridge now, but I’m hopeful that the Falcons and Freeman will choose to take things more slowly if they find themselves in this situation again, especially with Tevin Coleman available to carry the load. Risking one’s long-term health is something athletes do all the time, unfortunately, and sometimes under significant pressure from teams who offer painkillers, guilt trips, or veiled threats to keep them on the field. Ultimately, though, it’s rarely a good thing for the player, and as was illustrated by trotting out a limited Freeman for 10 carries in a do-or-die game against a brutal Philadelphia defense, it’s rarely a good thing for the teams.
I’m glad Freeman is taking care of his knee now with an eye toward a resurgent 2018 season, and I admire the hell out of him for playing through what must have been a painful injury. I just hope this isn’t a situation we have to reprise again.