We're wandering into dangerous ground here, so I'll make this clear from the start: I do not doubt that Jairus Byrd is hurt.
Of course, I don't doubt that Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are hurt, either. There's no doubt in my mind that Marcell Dareus, Kraig Urbik and Aaron Williams are hurt. I'm sure Kyle Williams' heels hurt him from time to time. Leodis McKelvin will probably be hurt when he comes back.
At a certain point in an NFL season, almost everyone is hurt in some fashion. It's the regrettable consequence of a violent game, one that pays young men a handsome sum to put their bodies in harm's way for 16 weeks or more every year. As the saying goes, you don't play injured, you play hurt.
Which brings us back to Byrd and his plantar fasciitis, which became an issue only after he signed his one-year franchise tender and reported to the Bills in late August when contract negotiations hit a stone wall.
There's another thing I don't doubt. If the Bills had given Byrd a long-term contract as one of the top safeties in the league (something in the five-year, $42.5 million range), there's no doubt in my mind that Byrd would have been on the field from the start of the season.
But Byrd was not going to play hurt for a team that wouldn't give him the contract he felt he had earned. He said he played through the condition a year ago. I don't doubt that, either, though it's interesting to note that the words “plantar fasciitis” never appeared in any news account about Byrd until he reported late to camp to ensure he wouldn't miss any game checks.
Again, I'm not saying Byrd is faking the injury (plantar fasciitis is a painful condition that affects the soles of the feet); it cannot be detected by an MRI. Exploiting it, yes. I suspected this was a strategy on the part of Byrd and his agent, Eugene Parker, a way to protest his treatment by the team and protect himself from serious injury.
I can't blame him. All along, I felt Byrd deserved to be paid as one of the top three safeties in the league. He's the only Buffalo draft pick since 2002 to be voted to the Pro Bowl as a position player for the Bills. He's done it twice. He was their best defensive player a year ago.
After the Bills passed on Andy Levitre, I felt it was time they celebrated one of their few home-grown stars by paying him elite money. If it seemed like overpaying to some people, well, this is pro sports. They had the money. It was time to show that if you produce here, you get paid.
At the same time, I can understand the rising disdain toward Byrd among Bills fans. He's being paid $6.9 million this year under the franchise tag. That means he's collecting more than $400,000 a game to do nothing. It's difficult for fans to understand how that qualifies as an insult.
But remember, this is a sport that conducts a draft and slots players by salaries. If a player outperforms his original deal, too bad. He has to wait to renegotiate. Byrd was a bargain for four years, same as Levitre.
Sitting out seems like a dubious strategy. Skeptics assume Byrd is hurting his chances at a big deal this way. Maybe so, but Darrelle Revis did it twice and had no trouble finding a suitor.
Evidently, Byrd is willing to take that risk. And if he doesn't play, he avoids the fate of other NFL players who got seriously hurt while on a one-year franchise tag – Henry Melton, Anthony Spencer and Dustin Keller, to name just a few.
We've gone beyond the point of taking sides. With each passing week, the Byrd situation becomes more distressing to fans and more of a distraction inside the locker room. There's no way he plays here next season. It would be lunacy to put the franchise tag on him again. They might as well trade him now, before the situation boils over.
This does no one any good. While Byrd makes his point, his teammates continue to battle nagging injuries and fight to establish a new Bills era.
Two days from now, they will be in Cleveland and will try to beat the Browns with their two top running backs hobbled.
There has to be simmering resentment in that locker room, toward Byrd and the team. How must a player feel when he's playing through pain and Byrd won't step on the field until he's 100 percent?
But even more so, I wonder how it feels to see a teammate, a star who was an underpaid model citizen for his first four season, get the hardball treatment from a franchise that's comfortably below the salary cap.
Fans usually back the team where big money is concerned. But people should be more concerned about what the Byrd standoff does to the chemistry of a young team that is trying to create a new competitive culture.
Players tend to sympathize with their own. They always remind us that the NFL is a business. When the kids see the team play hardball with Byrd, they have to wonder what will happen when they're in the same situation.
Think about that the next time a player takes himself out of a game with a minor injury. Come on, you don't think no one is privately thinking, “Why should I kill myself out there for this franchise when I might end up like Jairus some day?”
Put yourself in coach Doug Marrone's shoes. He's trying to build unity and selflessness in his young team. He can't relish having to come out every week and tell the media how hard Byrd is working to get back on the field, while everyone rolls their eyes.
The Bills could finally be on their way to better things. They're selling fresh faces, a promising new era. That win over the Ravens on Sunday was a real team-building experience. It was inspirational to see Jackson and Spiller gut it out against the defending Super Bowl champions.
The Byrd situation is a glaring contradiction, the elephant in the room. If management wants what's best for this team, it should stop pretending it can salvage an ugly situation. Move him, and move on.