Neal’s injury should touch Falcons, fans on multiple levels

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Keanu Neal's career with the Atlanta Falcons

When the Falcons tough-guy safety Keanu Neal collapsed in the end zone in Indy Sunday, an invisible sledgehammer to the heel telling him his season was over, his anguish spoke volumes.

"He's been our enforcer," fellow DB Ricardo Allen said Monday. Just a year ago, Allen went through the same trauma of an exploding Achilles. "Seeing tears in his eyes is a different feel. You don't see too many things break him down. You don't see too many things that even slow him down. You've seen him make some of the toughest hits in the league, fighting offensive linemen, doing some of the toughest work that you'll see players do."

“It affects us in a major way,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “He’s a huge part of our team. He’s an enforcer. His style of play is everything we represent as a defense. So, for us to lose him in the way we did, it hurts.”

Injuries are a part of football, that’s the standard reaction at times like this. And by times like this we mean pretty much any day after a game. Taking inventory on breaks, shredded ligaments and head trauma is the routine, what adding up the receipts at closing time is to a bar owner.

Next man up. By now, you know all the catch phrases that keep football going in the face of the weekly attrition.

Neal’s injury was non-contact, the random act of a vengeful tendon. It ambushed him just as he was putting a season-ending knee surgery last year behind him. Just, as Allen said, “he was getting back, hitting his stride.” Little wonder the tough safety seemed inconsolable immediately afterward.

“I’m heartbroken for the guy. We’ll miss him tremendously, but he’ll miss it even more. This dude loves football, the physicality of it, the grittiness of it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

And now Neal is looking at another long rehab, dealing with an Achilles injury that can be more limiting and problematic than a knee.

“The mind is the biggest thing,” Allen, the voice of experience, said. “You keep going through these injuries you got to ask yourself, is it really worth it? What is it worth?” Knowing Neal as he does, Allen believes he’ll make yet another comeback in 2020.

Other injuries Sunday put running back Ito Smith in concussion protocol and stalwart defensive lineman Grady Jarrett in whatever protocol deals with a troublesome aching toe. Every week is another adjustment to the toll of this game.

The injury to Neal, though, is a quite personal and wrenching one. No one with a pulse could watch his tortured reaction – the unblinking camera caught it all – without feeling a little bit of his angst, too. It twisted the gut. And it cuts close to the heart of this defense. Wasn’t Neal’s injury a year ago – along with that to linebacker Deion Jones, who missed 10 games – a major factor in 2018’s disappointing 7-9 outcome?

The Falcons will move around the pieces, like every team must in cases like this. Maybe they’ll plug in Kemal Ishmael, a hard-nosed fellow, at strong safety to play the run. And maybe turn to Sharrod Neasman when more coverage is required.

And they’ll never quite have the same edge that Neal supplied.

While wondering how the latest wounds might affect a team’s bottom line, it is good on occasion to be reminded that the weekly injury report in the NFL wears a face, too. And it is one we saw in Indianapolis, the one contorted in frustration and helplessness that can pain even the viewer 500 miles away.