Dr. Z will answer select user questions each week in his NFL mailbag.
Harris Barton had been a 10-year starter for the 49ers at right tackle, a multiple All-Pro, a mainstay of three Super Bowl championship teams. But when he suffered a serious knee injury in his 11th year, his life changed overnight.
"It was like one day I was living, the next day I was dead," he said. "All of a sudden I went from a person to a non-person. I felt like an outsider in my own locker room. Coaches would look at me doing my rehab and frown and then look away.
"Players I'd been close to would give me a 'hi, hello,' and keep walking. I'm sure that some of them felt it was kind of a jinx to get too close to me. Boy, did that ever open up my eyes to what the NFL was really like."
I'm sure that Steve McNair also has had his eyes opened up to what the league is really like. He is part of an unsightly little quarterback club. Hero one day, injury liability the next. Drew Brees is a member. So are Daunte Culpepper and Chad Pennington.
Does Ben Roethlisberger belong after his motorcycle accident on Monday? No, not yet. He's in the class of the Bengals' Carson Palmer. They're still young. The injury wasn't a re-injury (that one will put a guy in the "nuisance" class quicker than anything else). And they didn't have any knocks on them before the injury. At least not big ones.
Fingers are being wagged at Big Ben now for riding his motorcycle without a helmet. I wonder how many of those finger-waggers wear their seat belts every time they get in a car. Ben said he felt more free when he rode his bike without a helmet, and boy, does this ever sound frivolous, in retrospect. But the world at large has a hard time thinking as a superior athlete in a dangerous sport might think. I'm not saying it was the smartest thing in the world for him to ride without a hat, but the high-level athlete who is used to taking chances, to throwing his body around, does not always think along the lines of safety first. Maybe that's part of the reason he can be successful, wading through the land mines of professional football ... as callous as this might sound.
They say that everything's going fine with him right now. I wonder. I also read that four surgeons worked on him for seven hours. That's a lot of attention for a broken jaw and a broken nose. I'm not trying to play doctor here. I just hope that everything works out OK. The same with Palmer.
But I'll tell you something. If either of them should come back too early, should rush his rehab and then get re-injured, then everyone's perception will change. The two QBs will drop into the "yes, but" category. Yes, it's a shame, but he shouldn't have come back so quickly.
Pennington is in that class. Until he hurt his shoulder two years ago he was the savior of a Jets franchise that's constantly on the lookout for one. There wasn't a blemish on him. He was a bright-eyed, team-oriented kid with a lot of talent and a real feel for the game.