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.