After the Saints' final preseason game this summer, coach Jim Mora and general manager Jim Finks were discussing the cut-down to the team's 47-man active roster. Mora noted how other clubs had abused the rules pertaining to the injured reserve list and asked if New Orleans could take liberties as well. "Jim only brought it up because other people around the league are abusing the rules," Finks says, retelling the story. "I just told him we can't do things that way. We will play by the rules. But by doing that, I'm not giving my coach the same opportunity to be successful as coaches of other teams have. The people who play by the rules become a bunch of chumps."
The injured reserve list was set up to allow a team to protect an injured player without forcing it to give up a spot on its active roster. If a player is placed on injured reserve during the preseason, he is ineligible to play or practice with the team all season. If a player goes on IR after the final roster cut, he can't play or practice for at least four weeks. But the perception around the league is that some of the stronger teams stash prospects on injured reserve to give them an extra year of seasoning and also to keep them from being claimed on waivers by other teams.
Recently these abuses have become more of a concern to the teams that honor the rules, and last March the league's competition committee, chaired by Finks, urged commissioner Paul Tagliabue to be more vigilant in making sure teams adhere to the rules. The committee empowered Tagliabue to strip a club of a second-round draft choice in a case of flagrant cheating.
In June, during testimony in the NFL antitrust trial in Minneapolis, plaintiff Lee Rouson, a former NFL running back, said that when he was a rookie with the Giants he was told by a member of the team's medical staff to fake an injury in the last 1985 preseason game. New York didn't have a roster spot for Rouson but didn't want to leave him exposed to other teams; after the game Rouson reported a pulled hamstring. In pointing out another violation by the Giants, Rouson testified that he worked out regularly with the team during the time he spent on injured reserve. A source with the Giants last week confirmed that Rouson was asked to fake an injury in '85.
Many club officials throughout the league say the Redskins are the biggest abusers of IR rules. One former Redskin still playing in the NFL says he knew of Washington players who were asked by the club to get hurt in the preseason. He says team members "always knew" a young quarterback would come up with an injury so he could spend time developing as a pro and learning Washington's complicated offense.
In five of the last seven seasons, the Skins have put a young quarterback on injured reserve around the final cut date. They drafted Mark Rypien in the sixth round in 1986; he went on IR in '86 (knee) and '87 (back). In '90 Cary Conklin, a fourth-rounder, went on injured reserve after being hit on a knee during a drill. Last year Conklin played the fourth quarter of the final preseason game, and the Redskins didn't list him as hurt afterward. But three days later he went on IR with another knee injury. And this year fourth-round pick Chris Hakel went on injured reserve with what Washington said was a tired arm. (In '88 yet another quarterback, Stan Humphries, Washington's sixth-round pick that year, was stashed on the non-football injury list because of a blood disorder that he has had throughout his career.)
"The best story," the former Redskin player says, "was a lineman we had who let the cat out of the bag. He told [center Jeff] Bostic to hit him in the back so he could go down. We all decided nobody was going to touch him. So halfway through the drill, when somebody bumped into him, he went down and grabbed his back. He was screaming and moaning, 'Oh, my back.' "
The Redskins deny any wrongdoing. "All our injuries have been written up and properly documented," Washington general manager Charley Casserly said last Saturday. "The league has had a policy of bringing in injured players from time to time and checking their injuries, and the last year they did this, we had 13 guys examined. They were all confirmed to be hurt."
NFL spokesman Joe Browne says Tagliabue probably will examine several IR cases himself, sending some players to physicians that have no affiliation with the league. The NFL also can randomly request practice tapes from teams to see if players on IR are practicing illegally. But cynics around the league will believe the NFL is cracking down only when they see it.