"I hate to say it," says Barry Sanders, the Detroit Lions' superb—and relatively durable—running back, "but one of the first things you notice in this league is how steadily people step in and out of the lineup because of injuries. After a while you hardly notice it anymore. You just go on."
"In this business you get a bit numb to all the injuries," says assistant trainer Billy Brooks of the Atlanta Falcons. "Hey, three weeks into the season, these guys are all beat up. You just shake your head and do the best you can for them."
"You wouldn't be numb to it if you got the tearful phone calls I get on Sunday nights and Monday mornings throughout the fall," says player agent Leigh Steinberg. "It's become a major part of my job. I should have gone to medical school. I talk to players, wives, trainers and doctors, trying to help my players make decisions affecting the rest of their career."
Although it may seem otherwise, injuries are not on the upswing this season. "I've been studying injuries in the NFL for 13 years," says University of Iowa trainer Dr. John Powell, who puts together data sent by NFL trainers, "and as far as I can see, there's not much of a difference this year. The game is one of collision, and people get hurt." According to the NFL, 219 players were on injured reserve after 11 weeks of the 1991 season; 11 weeks into this season, the number was 213.
However, as the accompanying—and dizzying—list shows, 482 players have been hurt seriously enough to miss at least one game because of an injury this year. That's a staggering 17 players per team. Through Sunday these players had missed a total of 2,798 games, and figuring the average NFL salary to be $480,000, that's something in the neighborhood of $83,940,000 down the drain.
"I'd bet you that every team in the NFL has 10 players hurt enough that they could be put on injured reserve on any given week," says Washington Redskin general manager Charley Casserly, whose club certainly qualifies. While injuries have crippled the Washington defense at linebacker and in the secondary, a devastated offensive line is the biggest reason that the Skins have struggled to a 7-5 record this season. Injuries have forced Redskin coach Joe Gibbs to use three players at left tackle, three at left guard, three at center and three at right tackle. Only right guard Mark Schlereth has held his ground.
That Washington is still in playoff contention is stunning, considering its two starting cornerbacks (Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew) went down with broken forearms, Pro Bowl center Jeff Bostic has missed seven weeks with a torn rotator cuff, Pro Bowl left tackle Jim Lachey missed six weeks recovering from a torn knee ligament, guard Joe Jacoby sat out two games with a neck injury, and so on and so forth.
The Redskins have been so devastated along the offensive line that center Matt Elliott, who was the last player picked in the April draft, got his first start before Heisman Trophy winner and teammate Desmond Howard, the fourth player picked in the draft. "Who'da thunk it, me playing before Desmond?" says Elliott. "Me, a flippin' rookie. I'm in awe, starting for the world-champion Redskins."
For sure, luck with injuries has contributed to the success of the league's front-runners. Neither the Buffalo Bills nor the Miami Dolphins, who played for the AFC's best record three weeks ago, have had a season-ending injury to a key player. The same goes for the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, who at 10-2 are tied for the best record in the NFC.
On the other hand, fate has not been kind to other teams. Take the Lions, who reached the NFC Championship Game last season but are now 3-9. They have lost every starting offensive lineman except one to injury or death in the last 12 months, and four wideouts have missed a total of 16 games with various ailments. "I've coached in high school, college and the pros," says Lion coach Wayne Fontes, "and I've never seen a one-year stretch like this in my life."