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Painful Reality
PETER KING
October 11, 2004
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
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October 11, 2004

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

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Player/Why It Hurts

Team

Pos.

Injury

1. Kellen Winslow

Browns

TE

Broken leg

Cleveland rewrote its short-passing playbook to utilize the talented rookie it traded up in the draft to get; now the Browns rank 30th in the league in passing

2. Jon Jansen

Redskins

T

Torn Achilles tendon

Mark Brunell is running for his life because this premier right tackle was injured in Washington's preseason opener and isn't protecting the lefty passer's back

3. Mike Brown

Bears

FS

Torn Achilles

After his game-turning 95-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter, the defensive playmaker went down in the fourth quarter of a Week 2 upset of Green Bay

4. Jim Kleinsasser

Vikings

TE

Torn ACL

Minnesota thought so much of this 274-pounder who keys its running game that it re-signed him to a five-year, $15 million deal last March

5. Correll Buckhalter

Eagles

RB

Torn patellar tendon

Philly loves to run, but the loss of this versatile back forced the coaches to use smallish, 205-pound Brian Westbook as an every-down player

6. Rex Grossman

Bears

QB

Torn ACL

Desperate for a franchise quarterback, the Bears thought they had their guy in this second-year passer; now everything's on hold till '05

7. Kendall Simmons

Steelers

G

Torn ACL

Pittsburgh wanted to return to a power running game, but the offense is averaging only 3.8 yards a carry without this 313-pounder leading the way

8. Joe Nedney

Titans

K

Torn hamstring

On fourth-and-two with 11:33 left in a tie game against Indianapolis, Tennessee eschewed a 44-yard field goal try and failed to get a first down; the Colts capitalized and won

9. Charles Rogers

Lions

WR

Broken collarbone

Dream pairing of Rogers and rookie Roy Williams blew up on Detroit's third play of the season; Rogers also broke his collarbone in '03 and missed the last 11 games

10. Kyle Turley

Rams

T

Back

St. Louis not only misses his tenacity as a run blocker but also will take a $9 million salary-cap hit if Turley has to retire--as expected

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.

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