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

Pooka Williams had her moment in the sun.

Pooka Williams had her 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 they have played in an NFL game, but these five men all did exactly that this season.

It does not matter if it was just a game each, and it does not matter if any of them ever fit up again. Every single one of them has reached the top level of the sport and played in a regular season match. They do not take it from them. It is an achievement to be celebrated.

These five men are also part of a story whose full influence on the NFL is hard to process from week to week. As the league has messed up through another pandemic season where they thought they had things under control until they did not, there have been more opportunities than ever for new athletes to make themselves deserving of playing in the NFL.

In 2011, there were 1,931 players participating 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 increased every year … by 24, then by 12, 18, 14, 11 and 5, to a total of 2,025 players in 2019. In Considering the tendency to exercise more caution with injuries, this is what you would expect to see, a moderate increase. The average team started using three extra players per game over the course of nine years. season.

Then came 2020, and a big leap for 2,193 players who appeared in NFL games. Again, that makes sense. The pandemic hit, vaccines were not widely available, and even with the stricter precautions in place before players could get their shots, there would be outbreaks – and it was there.

We have now reached this season’s 16 games, matching previous years’ schedules, and the number of players who have been on an NFL court is 2,291. This is an increase of four percent compared to last year, where the normal annual increase for the last decade has been less than one percent.

Borlands, McCains, Kirks, Quessenberrys and Williamses in the league are the pinnacle of a season where, despite vaccinations being available, the impact of COVID-19 on the NFL has actually been greater. Just because there was no ridiculous scenario this year (like the Denver Broncos were going to play one games without quarterback), does not mean that things have gotten better.

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

It can be harder to notice because outside of week 15, the NFL has not really had to juggle its schedule due to COVID this season. Thanks to the vaccine, the increased number of cases has not caused panic in the same way as any occurrence of the virus did in 2020. What has been, is more measurable damage to rosters, and teams have to dig deeper into the available talent pool to find people to play on Sundays.

That’s a good thing for the men who’ve had their dreams of playing in the NFL fulfilled. It’s significantly less good for anyone who’s got COVID and now has to hope they do not develop postviral conditions along the way because the NFL, like the rest of the US decision makers, collectively stopped trying to beat the virus, but live with it as long as the money machine goes brrrr.

The NFL ends its season this weekend after getting through all the games, with fans in the stands, and who knows how many more people have been infected as a result, and a product on the field that has been weakened by having to grind through more than a hundred extra bodies. All checks will clear so it is a success.


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