- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In the NFL, you can’t go to the equipment man and get a new spleen. This is a shame because most people would rather function with a spleen than without one. The spleen may not be an Absolutely Essential Body Part like the heart or lungs, but it comes in handy when you’re trying to ward off, oh, a deadly infection.

Chris Simms woke up without his spleen this morning, and he’ll wake up without it again tomorrow morning … and every other morning after that. A ferocious hit by a Carolina Panther damaged it beyond repair Sunday, and removal was the wisest option. So a surgeon opened him up, just hours after Simms’ Tampa Bay team lost on a last-second field goal, and took the thing out.

Welcome to the flip side of an NFL quarterback’s existence. Yes, it’s a life filled with wine, women and product endorsements, but there’s an element of risk involved. Indeed, the QB might be the most vulnerable person on the field — except perhaps for the much-trampled end zone cameraman.

Receivers, of course, also have targets on their backs, but they usually don’t encounter rabid, 300-pound pass-rushers; plus, their number is called only a few times a game. A quarterback drops back to pass 25 or 30 times every week, sometimes more, and there’s always the chance he’ll be carried off in a neck brace — like the Chiefs’ Trent Green was recently — or need an emergency splenectomy. Fortunately, the league has a good health plan.

Some folks, usually former defensive players, like to paint quarterbacks as pantywaists. They point to all the rules protecting passers — the ones allowing them to slide to avoid contact and to intentionally ground the ball outside the pocket — and say, “Put a dress on ‘em.” Still, I can’t think of a linebacker who’s ever lost his spleen for the cause.

It takes an injury like this to remind us why these rules were written. Let’s face it, the occasional concussion — or broken jaw or fractured rib — doesn’t drive the point home nearly as strongly as a splenectomy. The mere thought of the latter is like a punch in the gut. From George Foreman.

Simms, according to reports, was in critical condition when he arrived at the hospital. And yet he stayed in the game until the bitter end, save for a brief trip to the locker room in the third quarter to deal with cramps and dehydration. Receiver Michael Clayton described him being “in the huddle at times muffling over his words and taking deep breaths in between calling plays because he couldn’t talk.”

At least Clayton stuck up for his quarterback, called him “a tough guy” who rallied the Bucs from a 17-0 deficit and “put us in a position to win the game.” At least Clayton didn’t pull a Terrell Owens. Owens, you may recall, had no compassion for the hard knocks Donovan McNabb absorbed in the Super Bowl two years ago against the Patriots — hits that left him, like Simms, bent over and breathless. All T.O. could say, months after the defeat, was: “I wasn’t the one who got tired.”

Tired? That ain’t the half of it. Simms took such a beating Sunday that no one is exactly sure when his spleen got splattered. Maybe it was when Panthers tackle Kris Jenkins unloaded on him in the first half. Maybe it was on his touchdown run in the third quarter. Or maybe it was one of the other times he was roughed up. Quarterbacking is a little like boxing; some of the worst shots are the ones nobody sees.

Even with flak jackets as standard equipment, the job has never been more hazardous. Blitzes, after all, are “in” now, and so are four-receiver sets that strip the quarterback of his protection. Sacks may not be increasing, but the number of QB-quashing hits seems to be. No spleen is safe.

This is why Brett Favre is a walking miracle — walking, that is, as opposed to limping. Favre has started 223 consecutive games for the Packers, a streak that goes back to 1992. He’s been knocked down plenty, sure, but he’s always gotten back up. He’s the exception that proves the rule, the proverbial Last Man Standing.

Sunday against the Lions, Favre continued to defy probability at age 36. He also threw three touchdown passes for the second straight week, including the 400th of his career. In Tampa, meanwhile, yet another young quarterback was whisked to the operating room, his innards in disarray.

Not to worry, though. Chris Simms, the Bucs say, might be back before the end of the season, glutton for punishment that he is.

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