Rodgers’ injury is a trend that’s hurting the game
14 Pro Bowlers are on injured reserve now, so we won’t be seeing them again in ’17
Maybe we should revise the saying “the NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint.” Actually, it’s not a race at all.
It’s more like a brawl among 32 different opponents over 17 weeks, a smashmouth brawl in which someone will get knocked out each week. But that might be tough for coaches to say at a news conference.
According to injury data at mangameslost.com, before Week 6’s games, 311 players had missed one or more games through injury, totaling 925 games missed. That’s down from 1,126 total games missed before Week 6 in 2015 and 1,524 last season. So the NFL is safer than it was last season, right? Probably not.
It certainly hasn’t seemed safer. In the very first game of the season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry tore his Achilles tendon, ending his season. The league’s best running back, Arizona’s David Johnson, had his season ended after only 11 carries and six receptions in Week 1. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill didn’t even make it to Week 1; he tore his ACL during training camp. Darren Sproles broke his arm and tore his ACL on the same play in Week 3, against the New York Giants. If that didn’t get your attention, the following week produced a pair of grave-sounding injuries. Seahawks tackle Rees Odhiambo was hospitalized for a bruised sternum, and Raiders quarterback Derek Carr fractured a vertebra.
During Week 5, the New York Giants lost Pro Bowl receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall to season-ending ankle injuries. J.J. Watt’s season ended in Week 5 also, when he fractured his leg during a loss to Kansas City. This season has been cruel to star players. So far this season, 14 former Pro Bowlers have been placed on injured reserve (IR), which is up from 10 players at this point last year. Aaron Rodgers’ broken clavicle may land him on IR before the end of the week. The Packers may be reluctant to put Rodgers on IR, as putting a player on IR means he is unavailable for the rest of the season. But given the number of injuries the Packers have, they may be forced to IR Rodgers to use his roster spot. Roster-size restrictions make it so that teams can’t afford to carry players who are unable to play for an extended stretch of time. Each roster spot is valuable.
But all is not lost for all players on IR. In 2012, the league decided to add some flexibility to the IR rules, allowing each team to designate one player for return from IR, after six weeks. This season brought a minor tweak to the rule. Now teams can choose any player to return from IR. Previously, the team had to designate the player to return when the player was placed on IR.
That might give a tiny bit of hope to Packers fans and other teams with a star player on IR. But the rash of IR-warranting injuries has affected more than just star players. There has been an uptick in IR usage for all players that can’t be accounted for by a slight rule change. While fewer games were missed because of injury this season, the total number of season-ending injuries is up. Before Week 6’s games this year, 378 players had been placed on IR.
That’s a 25 percent increase from the 303 players put on IR at the same point in the 2016 season. That continues the upward trend from the 271 and 299 players on IR before Week 6 during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, respectively. The substantially higher 2017 IR figure at this early point in the season assures us that 2017 will close the gap of total games missed, compared with 2015 and 2016. Barring some sort of divine intervention, 2017 could top 2016’s end-of-season injury stats.
This should worry the league because it directly affects the quality of the product. For evidence, look no further than the Monday Night Football matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans that once promised to be a showdown between two of the league’s best young talents, Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota. Instead, we were treated to Jacoby Brissett versus a hobbled Mariota. Not exactly a must-see duel.
But having a few subpar prime-time matchups won’t scare the NFL. And it shouldn’t. The fear should come from the idea that football is about as safe as it is going to get. Even the rule changes to protect quarterbacks and reduce head injuries don’t seem to be having a noticeable impact yet, coming off a weekend with multiple quarterbacks injured and several concussions, none uglier than Washington safety Montae Nicholson‘s. After attempting to tackle 49ers receiver Pierre Garcon, Nicholson lay on the ground helmetless, twitching. He returned to the game after satisfying doctors, who assessed him on the sideline.