METAIRIE, La. — My first reaction to the news that Nick Fairley is out for the season because of a heart condition has nothing to do with football.
It would be devastating news for anybody — and it’s an especially tough diagnosis for Fairley, who can’t seem to catch a break in the NFL. The 29-year-old finally had his breakout season with the New Orleans Saints last year after a turbulent start to his career, and he really seemed to enjoy playing close to his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, for the team his family grew up cheering on.
Fairley had a lot going on off the field last year, too, with the birth of his daughter and the unexpected death of his mother. I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional toll this has taken on him.
Nick Fairley won’t get a chance to follow up his 2016 season, which saw him record a career-high 6.5 sacks. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports
I hope he’s at peace with the decision, though — or eventually gets there — because as obvious as the decision might seem, it can’t be easy for the player or team to potentially end Fairley’s career.
We don’t know all the details, since it involves Fairley’s private medical information. But according to Saints coach Sean Payton, at least one heart specialist suggested Fairley quit playing football, while at least one other was more optimistic. Also, Fairley has played with an enlarged heart without issue for six NFL seasons — though the condition had apparently become more concerning.
Regardless, it would have to be extremely difficult for a player to decide to take that kind of risk. And it has to be downright impossible for a team to take that risk, which is what the Saints ultimately decided.
Here are three more quick thoughts:
A win for player safety. Player safety has become a huge topic in the NFL, especially when it comes to the long-term effects of concussions. And it has been hotly debated how much the league and its teams care about the players’ well-being. This is obviously an instance in which the Saints are looking out for Fairley’s health — and their team doctors deserve a huge kudos for red-flagging the issue during his physical.
A skeptic might say the Saints have financial motives for placing Fairley on the non-football injury list — and they will likely fight to recoup some of his $8 million signing bonus and other guarantees. But the Saints obviously didn’t want this. They just signed Fairley to the richest deal of his career three months ago because they thought he was such a good fit in his first year in New Orleans last season.
Financial gray area. There is no black-and-white answer for how the financials will play out, since this is such a unique instance. In hindsight, the Saints never should have passed Fairley on his physical if they had any lingering doubts about the heart issue. But it’s possible they didn’t think it would be a major issue since Fairley had passed medical exams throughout six NFL seasons with three different teams. He was diagnosed with an enlarged heart before his NFL career began, and Payton said that’s not uncommon in the NFL.
It’s unclear if the Saints will argue that Fairley had some sort of undisclosed condition that could nullify the contract — or if this will just be treated as though Fairley suffered a non-football injury after he signed his contract.
Under NFL rules, the Saints won’t be required to pay Fairley’s $1 million base salary this year. But both sides will likely file grievances over whether the Saints should get back some of the signing bonus money they have already paid him or whether Fairley is still owed more of his guarantees. They will either reach an injury settlement, or an arbitrator will decide.
Football fallout. The other big disappointment here, obviously, is that the Saints just lost one of the best players on a defense that already needed a huge upgrade.
The good news is that second-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins plays the exact same 3-technique position — and I think the first-round pick from Louisville has a chance to emerge as one of the Saints’ best defensive players during his sophomore season. But the Saints like to do a lot of rotating at that position to keep the big bodies fresh, and they would likely have used both players together on many passing downs.
Now the Saints will count even more on second-year DT David Onyemata, a fourth-round pick out of Canada last year. Coaches have been high on Onyemata’s development this offseason, but he almost certainly won’t replicate the kind of production Fairley had last year, with a career-high 6.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits.
I still expect New Orleans’ defense to improve substantially in 2017 with a healthy secondary and a revamped linebacker corps, because … well, it can’t get much worse. But this certainly won’t help matters.