In reality, every player in the NFL is playing hurt to some extent. Professional football is a brutal game, and we are constantly being reminded that the human body is not designed to hold up for long periods of time under the stresses of being a modern-day gladiator.
There are, however, some players that we can know are limited by their injuries, either through their own admission or just what our eyes can see.
What elements are their teams missing as the players fight through their ailments? How are the teams adjusting to their now-limited ability? Let's break down a few of the most prominent players who have been "playing hurt."
Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England
Hernandez suffered a serious ankle sprain in Week 2 and missed three games. The Patriots were able to pick up the slack by giving more snaps and targets to Wes Welker, who had been demoted from the starting lineup for Julian Edelman in that same game.
The plot thickened when the Patriots brought Hernandez back in Week 6. He played that week and the following, catching 11 balls for 84 yards and a score during the pair of games. But when the team flew to London to play the St. Louis Rams, Hernandez didn't accompany them.
Some speculated that the Patriots were prudently giving Hernandez an extra week to heal leading into their Week 9 bye so that he could be 100 percent for the second half of the season. After all, Hernandez had lacked explosion and lateral agility in the two games leading up to Week 8.
That theory was shot when Hernandez was sidelined for Weeks 10 and 11. He returned for the Thanksgiving tilt against the Jets, but not before he missed three additional games (and four calendar weeks) for an injury that he had already supposedly gotten over.
Hernandez didn't look hobbled against the Jets as he had in Week 6 and 7, so it sure seems like the Patriots learned their lesson and let him sit for the right amount the second time around.
Of course, we can only guess because the Patriots are more secretive than the CIA about injuries. Hernandez remains limited in practice this week and will likely be listed as questionable for the rest of the season.
Don't expect him to be a late scratch this time around, though. The team is missing Rob Gronkowski, who was playing through a hip injury of his own.
Gronkowski's broken forearm could be a blessing in disguise for the Patriots; he was listed as questionable most weeks going back to early October. Unlike Hernandez, Gronkowski did not exhibit any visual evidence of his injury slowing his game down.
Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington
Garcon had a spectacular start to the season, registering over 100 yards and a score in his first eight plays, and then he hurt his foot. The Redskins brought him back in Weeks 4 and 5, but he was ineffective and clearly not even close to over his injury.
Like the Patriots, they were more prudent with a second chance to manage the injury, and Garcon sat through the team's Week 10 bye. Garcon was quiet in his Week 11 return against the Eagles, but he made it through the game without any setbacks. On Thanksgiving against the Cowboys, he was anything but quiet.
Garcon was limited to less than 50 percent of the snaps in the game, but he was 100 percent playmaker on his 59-yard touchdown catch and run. Players who aren't themselves can't go up to catch a ball thrown behind them like this:
Or run away from the defense like this:
Garcon isn't sugarcoating the effect of the injury:
Garcon "I think I'm going to make it through the whole season. I've been dealing w/ the pain 4 so long, it's only getting numb, used to it."
— Chris Russell (@Russellmania980) November 28, 2012
The Redskins are doing a good job managing the malady, and he is back to practicing in full. If this is Garcon playing hurt, then I can't wait to see him at full speed in 2013.
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, New York Giants
Bradshaw knows injuries all too well. He has had both of his feet and ankles operated on during his career, and he avoided surgery this offseason by having a bone marrow "injunction" to facilitate healing for a broken bone in his foot.
In what is becoming an annual tradition for Bradshaw, he is battling an ankle injury that is limiting his practice participation to a very minimal amount during the week. He also has neck issues which cost him a game earlier this year.
Bradshaw hasn't missed any games due to his ankle injury, and he is actually getting better each week while he is being treated with kid gloves. The Giants and Bradshaw will be put to the test as Andre Brown, who had been lightening the load on Bradshaw, went down with a broken fibula and is out for the year.
Based on their histories, we should trust both to be wise about not taking unnecessary risks. Rookie first-round pick David Wilson should see more work down the stretch to preserve Bradshaw for an inevitable trip to the playoffs.