TEMPE, Ariz. — The hardest thing to judge when covering football is knowing when a team is pushing an injured player too hard to return, and when that player is not pushing himself hard enough.
Injuries are a media minefield in the NFL. Teams only reveal enough to satisfy league rules and, truth be told, the guys in Vegas. So while you may know the nature of a player’s injury, you don’t often know the severity.
Four seasons ago, the Cardinals listed running back Beanie Wells with a knee bruise and kept hinting he needed to get back on the field. Turned out Wells had just had surgery.
So when evaluating left guard Jonathan Cooper’s willingness to play through a turf toe on his right big toe, first keep in mind that the injury is far more painful than it sounds. Second, keep in mind that only Cooper knows just how painful and limiting and severe it is. Third, keep in mind that it is definitely still painful, although Cooper has practiced the last two days and expects to play in the preseason finale Thursday against San Diego — coincidentally the team against which he broke his leg last preseason.
"Of course. It’s turf toe," Cooper said when asked if it still hurt. "That’s one of those things that is going to linger for a little bit. You really just have to put it out of your mind and keep moving forward."
There’s no telling whether Cooper would have tested the toe this week without some not-so-subtle prodding from coach Bruce Arians, who made it clear a couple times during training camp that Cooper needed to get out of the training room.
"Turf toe is something a lot of guys deal with, and his was fairly severe," Arians said. "We don’t want it to linger all year long. It’s going to be one of those things where we either rest it for a long time or we play on it."
At least publicly, Cooper said the past two days went well and helped him clear a mental hurdle.
"It’s a little further along than I expected," he said. "Sometimes, if I hit it just right, it will let me know it’s there. Otherwise it’s just kind of a general soreness.
"They told me before I came out here that it got to the point where I couldn’t injure it any further. Then it was just on me to kind of tough through it."
Toughing it out is a major component of being an NFL player.
"Especially at our position," center Lyle Sendlein said. "There’s always something hurting."
Sendlein played through a badly injured shoulder his second season and has dealt with an assortment of injuries over his eight-year career.
"I never felt like I had the luxury of taking days off so I always pushed through. Sometimes I feel the repercussions of that now," he said. "I was an undrafted guy who’s always had to work twice as hard as the guy in front of me. I’ve always believed in ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ I never wanted to be an afterthought in this business because they’re always moving forward, and they’ll move on without you."
Sendlein said he learned early in his career that was the expected mindset in the offensive line culture, but he also made it clear that only the injured player knows how much he can take.
"I don’t have much or want to say much about another player’s injury and how he handles things. That’s his call," Sendlein said. "I don’t feel right if I’m on the sideline if my guys are out there practicing. It’s an uneasy feeling, but I know it is for Coop, too. I know he wants to be back out there, and he’s doing everything he can."
Arians believes the past two days will serve as a barometer for Cooper.
"If he feels comfortable enough to play in this game, he’ll have a good feel for what it’s going to be like the rest of the year," Arians said.
Will Cooper be as effective as he could be when healthy? Maybe not.
"There are times on some pulls where I may not look as fluid, but I get out there and do the job," he said.
Ironically, the injury might be helping with the footwork Arians cited as a problem earlier in camp.
"The injury is kind of helping me focus on staying on my insteps," Cooper said. "That’s how you’re supposed to play as an offensive lineman. At times, I get a little funky with my feet and up on my toes, so this is really helping me to stay on my insteps, and that in turn helps my balance."
Now it’s up to Cooper to decide if he can handle the pain for as long as it lingers. If he can, he’ll play and should be lauded for his toughness. If he can’t, he’ll no doubt face criticism.
But when judging, keep this as backdrop: The Cardinals don’t want their 2013 top pick sitting out any more games after missing all of last season. They’re going to push him.
Sometimes, that’s a wise thing; sometimes it’s not.
"Going into the season, I want to show what I can do — show it for my own personal gain as well as show it to the coaches," he said. "Rest is the last thing I’m concerned about right now. I need to be out on the field right now, and that’s what I’m focusing on."