Wave of season-ending injuries crippling NFL
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Troy Polamalu isn't sure why there has been an inordinate number of season-ending injuries this NFL season. He's certain, however, that only the strong will survive.
A study of league transactions and injury reports revealed that 241 players have been placed on injured reserve or characterized as out indefinitely entering these Week 8 games. In contrast, 235 players were on injured reserve as of Week 12 last season.
The Steelers last season placed three players on injured reserve, which was second lowest in the league. So far, they have eight players on IR, including season-ending injuries to All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and linebacker Larry Foote (ruptured biceps).
The season began ominously with 181 players on IR. Also, significant injuries have caused eight teams to lose starting quarterbacks, including St. Louis' Sam Bradford, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Philadelphia's Michael Vick.
However, the mounting injuries are hardly a recent trend. The NFL Players Association reported 4,493 injuries in 2011, up 41.5 percent from the 3,174 injuries in 2010. The 2011 total more than doubled the 2,160 injuries reported 10 years ago.
“There's a reason why we don't have guaranteed contracts,” Polamalu said. “In this game we all are prone to injuries.”
Some players have cited rules changes and the league's resistance to mandate grass-only fields for some of the latest injuries, including those to Indianapolis receiver Reggie Wayne (knee) and Cutler (knee).
Others point to the fact players are faster and stronger, a combination that generates thunderous contact. The result is an increase in concussion symptoms even amid a crackdown on helmet-to-helmet blows.
“It's an accumulation of all those things,” Polamalu said. “The game is far more wide open, which creates bigger and harder collisions.
“A lot of guys do a lot of extra things health-wise. Sometimes it's not enough. They have to hire massage therapists and chiropractors. You don't really learn you need all that help until you talk to older players about how they take of their bodies.”
The Steelers were impacted in the season opener when they lost Pouncey and Foote. The Steelers are off to a 2-4 start, in part, because injured players have been difficult to replace.
But the Steelers were plagued with injuries during training camp. While rookie running back Le'Veon Bell was slowed by knee and foot ailments, receiver Plaxico Burress, who could have figured prominently in the passing game, suffered a potentially career-ending shoulder injury in a noncontact incident.
Jeffrey Guy, a professor at South Carolina and one of the country's leading orthopedic surgeons, told the Tribune-Review that the increase in injuries are likely the result of three factors: rules changes, physiological evolution of players heightened by enhanced training programs and the slow development of safer equipment.
“Considering that force equals mass times acceleration — the faster and bigger you are, the harder a player will be hit,” Guy said. “When you add the rule changes on top of it, especially those instituted to prevent head trauma, it's just a matter of time before the leg injuries increase.
“I doubt there were a lot of 6-5 linemen running 4.6 in the 40-yard dash back in 2000. It's a very simple mix of speed, strength. Now you get guys who are 5 inches taller, 40 pounds heavier and 30 percent faster. It's a simple prescription for injuries. I don't see where the answer lies in prevention unless you change the gear that can protect the body from the blows they take.”
There have been improvements to helmets. But Foote said concussions continue to plague the league, partly because most players have refused to switch to the more cumbersome, bigger but safer helmets.
“I didn't see as many guys asleep on the field as I do now,” Foote said. “The equipment changes can't keep up with the enhancement in conditioning. The helmets are far safer, but they're not the most attractive things. It's ugly, and I hate it, but I don't get the dings, and I'm not seeing stars with this helmet. It's time to get rid of that old-style helmet.”
Linebacker Jarvis Jones, the Steelers' 2013 No. 1 draft pick, and Minnesota quarterback Josh Freeman are among those sticking with the old helmets. Jones missed last Sunday's game against Baltimore after suffering concussion symptoms two weeks ago. Freeman will be benched on Sunday because of a concussion he suffered Monday night.
“One of the reason we see an increase in injuries is because of concussions,” Guy said. “In the past, a player simply said he had a headache. They are more educated now about concussions.”
While the NFL allows flexibility with helmets, it mandates the use of certain pads but not knee pads. Steelers second-year offensive tackle David DeCastro said season-ending knee injuries like the one he suffered last season may be less damaging if knee pads were required, as they are by the NCAA.
“The new rules about wearing pads is all about (the league and owners) trying to cover themselves,” Foote said. “I'm more concerned with young guys not wearing the new helmet.”
The rules were designed to provide cover for unprotected offensive players. But an unintended consequence has been an increase in injuries among defensive players. At least that's the perception of linebacker LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Clark.
“It's tough for guys to adjust,” Taylor said. “They put in a new rule every other year, and it changes how players approach the game on both sides of the ball.”
Taylor also blames artificial and synthetic turf for a number of recent injuries, including Wayne's and Cincinnati cornerback Leon Hall's.
“I'm not a big fan of turf,” said Taylor, whose 135 consecutive games played streak ended when he injured his right ankle on Baltimore's field, a mix of sand and granular rubber. “A lot of knee injuries have been on turf. I think every stadium should have grass, which gives naturally.”
Foote, though, insisted the rules are a bigger problem than turf.
“A lot of the shoulder injuries are the result of defensive players trying to get their heads out of the way to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact,” Foote said. “At the same time, a lot of leg injuries are going to happen because defensive players are going to say, ‘The (heck) with it, I'm going low,' so expect more leg injuries to pop up.”
Woodley said he doesn't expect the league and union to negotiate a compromise on rules changes to combat injuries. Instead, he predicts that increasingly punitive fines will continue to change how defensive players in particular approach the game — another potential recipe for injuries.
Players union executive committee president Domonique Foxworth could not be reach for comment.
“We knew this was going to happen, especially with the rule changes with helmet-to-helmet contact and the fines being so high,” Woodley said. “(League executives) have essentially made it legal to hit guys on the knees.
“The perception is it's OK to hit someone on the knee instead above the shoulders.”
“I would think some of the lower-extremity injuries to receivers are due to the rules because guys don't want to hit them in the head,” Clark added. “There's nothing you can do about some of the injuries. Obviously they are trying to legislate some of the head injuries out of the game because too many people are getting head injuries. I don't know how you take out knee injuries and broken hands out of the equation.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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