Painful Reality

A rash of major injuries raises the question of whether the NFL's oversized and ultrafast players have pushed their bodies beyond the breaking point
October 10, 2004

ON A PICTURE-PERFECT season-opening Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago last month, the Bears' five captains marched to midfield for the coin toss with the Detroit Lions. Among Chicago's representatives were arguably the team's three most indispensable players: promising quarterback Rex Grossman and the two cornerstones of their solid young defense, cat-quick linebacker Brian Urlacher and punishing safety Mike Brown.

Within 14 days all three players, plus three more starters, would be sidelined with injuries, crippling the Bears' season. Brown (torn Achilles in Week 2) and Grossman (torn ACL in Week 3) were lost for the season; Urlacher, who strained a hamstring early in training camp, aggravated the injury in Week 2 and has missed the last two games for the 1-3 Bears. Even Chicago's bitter rivals were sympathetic. Pepper Burruss, the longtime Green Bay Packers trainer, called Tim Bream, his counterpart in Chicago, last week and said, "Dude, don't go standing under a tree in a lightning storm. You guys are getting wiped out."

The Bears weren't the only NFC North team ravaged by injuries. The Minnesota Vikings, who put three players on injured reserve throughout 2003, had seven on the list after three weeks this season. Starting tight end Jim Kleinsasser (torn knee ligament) and his backup, Jermaine Wiggins (broken hand), went down in the first and second weeks, respectively. The day after Wiggins got hurt, coach Mike Tice made a call to training-camp cut Sean Berton, who was shopping in the Mall of America, and said, "Get ready. You're probably going to start next week."

The NFL's casualty list doesn't just seem longer this year. It is longer. An executive for one team told SI that from the start of training camp through the first three weeks of the season, the number of players on injured reserve was up 39% over the average for the same period from 1998 through 2003. During that six-year window an average of 105 players were on injured reserve after the third week of the season; through three weeks this year the number was 146. Even more striking, 33 of the players on IR were starters--almost double the number (18) who were sidelined for the season after three weeks last year. The Cincinnati Bengals, who placed three players on injured reserve last year, already had shelved 10 players through Week 3. During their Sept. 19 game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Cleveland Browns lost four of their 10 highest-paid players with injuries that will keep them out for anywhere from a month to the rest of the season. Even the league's positive-spin website, NFL.com, took notice. On the morning of Sept. 28, under its NFL HEADLINES section, the first six stories were injury-related.

Maybe the rash of serious injuries was a three-week anomaly. (Analysis of Week 4 was not available when SI went to press on Monday.) "It's fluky," Carolina Panthers coach John Fox says. "By the end of the year I don't think the numbers will be very different. We've got a violent game, and these guys are human projectiles." But Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the league's competition committee, said last Friday that the injury numbers "really concern me. If it continues, it would put much more emphasis on the league trying to figure out why this is happening."

Dr. Elliot Pellman, the chairman of the New York Jets' medical department and the NFL's medical liaison with the 32 teams, says, "It's gotten my attention, and the league's attention. The fundamental question is: Has something changed this year regarding the number and nature of injuries? I suspect not. But I won't know for sure until the season plays out."

Team executives, coaches, players and trainers have various theories about the increase in serious injuries, but most of them agree on one: The human projectiles have gotten too big and too fast, and the collisions too violent. If that's why so many stars have been sidelined with broken legs (Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith), torn Achilles tendons (Washington Redskins tackle Jon Jansen) and broken vertebrae (Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon), what, if anything, can the league do about it? Maybe it's time to dial down the almost year-round training, and time for the NFL to make sure that players are given sufficient opportunity to recover from a brutal season.

Of course, the signs of increased injury risk have been around for years. While football players have always been big, the rate at which they've been growing has increased sharply in recent years. Take the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example: In 1964 their starting offensive line averaged 241 pounds; that average rose to 260 pounds in '84 (an 8% increase in 20 years) and 309 pounds this year (a 19% increase in 20 years). The pattern was similar on the Pittsburgh defensive line for those same intervals: 255 pounds to 263 (3%) to 305 (16%). And though speed comparisons aren't available, coaches such as Fox agree that NFL players across the board are much faster today.

When the league harvests a new crop of college players every season, what are the teams looking for? Bigger, stronger, faster players. Before the annual scouting combine, in which 300 of the top prospects are paraded in front of coaches, scouts and front-office personnel, the draft hopefuls--many of whom drop out of college to prepare--spend intense weeks training not for exhibitions of their football skills but for speed and weightlifting tests. "Speed is everything," says Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker, a six-year veteran. "Before the combine, it's as if guys have crossed over to track--that's how they're training. Even linemen are training for 40-yard dashes, but how many times in a game have you ever seen a lineman run 40 yards straight ahead?"

The speed work doesn't stop after the combine. For example, this year the Miami Dolphins gave their players three weeks off between the end of their off-season program and the start of training camp in late July. But newly acquired wideout David Boston didn't use that time to rest; he went to New Orleans for speed training. Then, in the second week of preseason camp, Boston tore his left patellar tendon during a noncontact drill.

In the search for ways to run faster, players are wearing lighter, less protective equipment and in some cases removing gear altogether. "When I look at some of the old NFL Films footage," Denver Broncos safety John Lynch says, "the first thing I notice is how much they're wearing--big shoulder pads, hip pads, thigh pads, knee pads. Today, with coaches preaching speed, guys are taking the pads off." Most receivers--and even some linebackers and pass rushers--don't wear pads on their legs, except maybe thin thigh pads.

Then there are the shoes. "Every time I talk to [shoe companies], I tell them, 'I want them as light as possible,'" Lynch says. The Packers, among other teams, are seeing a rise in plantar fasciitis (a nagging foot injury), turf toe and arch injuries. Generally, players are left to determine the style of shoe they wear, but this summer Burruss and a team doctor vetoed the footwear of one player because they believed the track shoe was too light (about four ounces), with too little support. "Some of these shoes have almost a bedroom-slipper feel," Burruss says. "Left to their own devices, I'd say probably 10 percent of every team--five or six guys at least--would wear track shoes."

Add it up: Increased mass plus added velocity minus protection equals more dangerous collisions. The first quarter of this season may be a fluke, as Fox suggests, but it may also be a warning shot across the NFL's bow. "Last year," Lynch says, "I was hurt to the degree that I missed a few games and had to watch from the sideline. I was astonished at the speed of the game. I wondered, Am I really moving that fast? I guess I must be. You see that, and you understand why so many guys get hurt."

Recovery time, or the lack of it, might have something to do with the rash of injuries. "We go so year-round with this game that I'm not sure guys get the recovery time they need," says Dolphins trainer Kevin O'Neill. "That has to at least be a point of discussion." Much about this subject is unknown; even trainers aren't sure whether a player is better off lying on a beach for a month after the season or beginning a light training regimen soon after the games end.

Matt Birk, the Vikings' Pro Bowl center, tries to stay in shape all year, but he's beginning to wonder if that's such a good idea. He said he took only four days off after Minnesota's season ended last December, reasoning that it's easier to stay in shape than to get into shape after slacking off. He worked out on his own for nearly three months, then participated in the team's 12week off-season program. He had a two-week break before training camp began. "When I showed up at camp, I found out I had a sports hernia," he says. "They said it was just the wear and tear of football."

Birk has thought about whether he's pushing his 6'4", 308-pound body too hard in workouts, and he wonders if that was the cause of his hernia. "It might be," he says, "but you've got to work hard in this game to keep up."

One team that believes in extended periods of rest is Carolina--Fox gave his players six weeks off before training camp--and other than Smith's broken leg and running back Stephen Davis's injured knee (he had arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage), the Panthers have had few injuries. "My trainer, Ryan Vermillion, was real nervous about the players being gone for so long," says Fox. "But I want them fresh for camp." New Atlanta coach Jim Mora gave his team five weeks off before camp, and only one Falcons starter, rookie cornerback DeAngelo Hall (broken hip), has suffered a major injury.

At the rate players were dropping during the first three weeks of the season, it seemed playoff berths might go to the teams that have the best 56th or 61st players. The Super Bowl-champion Patriots led the NFL in games missed because of injury last year (231), but they survived because coach Bill Belichick and personnel czar Scott Pioli come out of every training camp with not only a 53-man roster but also a dozen or more candidates who will be available to return to the team on short notice. "You better find 65 guys good enough to play, because that's probably what it's going to take," Belichick says.

With Minnesota having a bye last week, Birk was working hard not to become a statistic. Nursing a high-ankle sprain suffered against the Bears on Sept. 26, he got treatment at the team facility four times a day and alternated hot and cold compresses at home. In previous bye weeks the seven-year veteran would have spent a lot of time with his family and fished the streams around the Twin Cities. "My wife's spazzing out, but this is my job," says Birk. "There's no time to be hurt."

Try telling that to the 146 players who had landed on injured reserve by the end of September.

Nothing Hurts Worse

Among the 146 players who went on injured reserve from the start of camp through the first three weeks of the season, here are the 10 whose losses are the most damaging to their teams.

COLOR PHOTOTONY GUTIERREZ/AP TOUGH BREAK The Browns recovered an onside kick late in a game against Dallas, but they lost prized rookie Winslow on the play.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)