With the first NFL training camp set to open on Friday, when the Buffalo Bills report to John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., the elephant in the room continues to be the number of games lost to injury, which has spiked in the last two seasons.
According to John Clayton of ESPN, the NFL lost 1,276 games to injury or suspension in 2010, the last season played before a new collective bargaining agreement that radically cut the amount of practice time players were required to participate in during the offseason.
The 2011 season isn’t a good one to use as a measuring stick, since the offseason programs that season were wiped out by the lockout.
But in 2012, the NFL lost 1,414 games to injury and suspension—a nearly 11 percent increase over 2010.
In 2013, it reached even higher—a whopping 1,601 player games lost, a 13.2 percent jump from just the previous season and an alarming 25 percent higher than the pre-CBA rate.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, has no doubt in his mind that the reduction in offseason training is directly attributable to the increase in games lost due to injury.
“I’m in favor of total preparation for the players for the season,” Belichick told the Associated Press last December. “And I think that’s been changed significantly and, I would say, not necessarily for the better, when you look at the injury numbers.
“You have a gap between preparation and competition level. And I think that’s where you see a lot of injuries occurring. We get a lot of breakdowns. We get a lot of situations that players just aren’t as prepared as they were in previous years, in my experience anyway.”
Not surprisingly, the NFL’s take on the situation is similar to the reaction of legendary Detective Frank Drebin in “The Naked Gun”:
“We carefully monitor player injuries,” NFL spokesman Michael Signora said in December. “There is no evidence that the new work rules have had an adverse effect on the injury rate or that injuries have in fact increased.”
Well, no evidence other than, you know, the data that shows that the number of injuries have increased.
Leigh Steinberg, a former player agent, says the new CBA has created an NFL environment where players might be “in shape” but not “in football shape.”
In a piece for Forbes shortly after training camps opened last year, Steinberg wrote:
Not so long ago training camps were used to whip out of shape players into playing form in the sweltering heat of college campuses across the country. In the long offseason players would stop training, revert to old eating patterns, lose stamina and gain weight. No longer. The competitive pressure and offseason conditioning programs that teams hold force players to a standard of fitness year round. They work with private trainers on nutrition and weight training. Teams are allowed to have “voluntary” four day a week offseason workout programs for nine weeks. They may be voluntary in the Collective Bargaining Agreement but woe to the player who defies his coach’s wishes that he participate.
For the safety of players, new rules were negotiated in the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement that eliminated almost all offseason contact drills. There are new limitations on the amount of padded contact during training camp and the season. This is so players do not leave their best play on the practice field and unnecessarily incur injury risk. The effect is to send players into training camp who have not been hit in seven months.
When a group of incredibly fast, unbelievably large and strong athletes come together and have had none of the jarring impact that takes a toll on every joint in the human body for months and then dramatically does contact practices with fresh bodies—it puts shock and trauma on the body it is not prepared for. Inevitably, serious injuries occur. Perhaps the NFL teams can design a better transition period to ramp up more slowly. Until then, the casualties will continue to pile up.
Or as one NFL executive told Clayton much more succinctly: “Long rest helps joints, but long rest isn’t great for tendons.”
If players aren’t doing the right kind of training, designed to keep the tendons and ligaments working, they can become vulnerable to the devastating injuries we continue to see, similar to the torn ACL suffered by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee during offseason team activities this spring, a non-contact injury.
ACL tears, Achilles tendon injuries … these and other soft tissue injuries become more common in players who are staying “in shape,” but not focusing on the right things.
Researchers at the University of Michigan published the results of a study on ways to prevent ACL tears and found that training programs—specific exercises aimed at addressing the risk factors for ACL injuries—can reduce those injuries by as much as 50 percent.
However, the study might have been incomplete—individual aspects of the training programs weren’t analyzed, but rather were looked at as a whole program.
But there is unquestionably a link between doing the right types of exercise and reducing the risk of ACL tears.
Two seasons is a small sample size, admittedly. But a 25 percent increase in player games lost to injury over just a three-year period is also an alarming increase.
Could the unintended consequence of trying to make the job safer for players be that it has actually increased the risk of injury?
If the injury trend continues its uptick in 2014, we might be closer to having the answer to that question.