This year in NFL, if you can mend, you can contend

JOHN EISENBERG

September 25, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Mean Season is upon us with gusto. Ankles are turning. Muscles are pulling. Limbs are snapping. Miles of tape are being unrolled. Dozens of prognoses are being made. General managers are working the phones, finding new players to replace those who went down with a pop, a bang, a crunch.

After two weeks of the National Football League season, there were 99 players on the league's injury report last week. Twenty-three different parts of the body were listed as damaged, everything from a buttocks to a jaw. (My favorite listing? "Head." What, precisely, does that mean? And has anyone asked the man to count to 10?)

The numbers will swell this week. It was a tough Sunday. The Redskins' quarterback strained his knee. The Minnesota Vikings' quarterback injured his thumb. The Indianapolis Colts lost all three of their quarterbacks to injury during a game in Houston.

The year is young, but already tough. The Denver Broncos don't have much of a defense. The Cleveland Browns don't have much of an offense. The Los Angeles Rams are flopping almost as miserably as "Ishtar." Injuries are among the central aspects of each of those stories.

Welcome to the Mean Season. Blocking, tackling, running and passing determine the outcome of every football game, from peewee to the pros. But in the NFL, no part of the game is more important than injuries.

"It's a war of attrition," said George Young, general manager of the New York Giants. "The teams that have the most healthy, good players at the end of the season tend to be in the hunt. That's the way it is almost every year."

Injuries are a given in the NFL, a fact of life. Most players will need a doctor at some point during the season. Teams can only hope that their injuries aren't catastrophic, that the wrong players aren't ruined for the season.

The San Francisco 49ers have been the NFL's best team the past few years, but they also have been among the luckiest. Not one of their essential players has lost much time because of an injury.

"The 49ers are a very good team, but the healthiest team is going to win," said Joe Theismann, who was the Redskins' quarterback until a broken leg ended his career, and is now an ESPN broadcaster. "We can pretty well guess right now who is going to make the playoffs this year. Injuries will be the ultimate difference between them."

Already, the impact is significant. The Broncos, for instance, are in some trouble. They have lost a starting cornerback and defensive end for the season. Both safeties are out right now. "I don't recognize anyone in the huddle," linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. (Author's note: The nation will not mourn if the Broncos fail to return to the Super Bowl.)

The Vikings certainly will be diminished without quarterback Wade Wilson. The Browns are punchless without their best back, Kevin Mack, who has a broken finger. Both teams -- division winners a year ago -- are off to a 1-2 start.

The Rams, a popular preseason choice for the Super Bowl, also are 1-2, their defense staggered by injuries. The home-field advantage in the playoffs, which they dearly wanted, may soon be outside their grasp.

On the other hand, it is no coincidence that the Chicago Bears are a) off to a surprising 3-0 start, and b) one of two teams that didn't list an injury in last week's report. (Maybe Mike Ditka warned them that only sissies got hurt.)

Was it always this way? One wouldn't think so. With players constantly getting bigger, stronger and faster, it seems only logical that injuries are more of a factor now than, say, a decade ago. The collisions are more brutal.

It doesn't help that 15 of the 28 teams play on artificial turf, on which risk increases, or that there has been widespread use of steroids, with which players develop stronger muscles than their bones can stand.

But according to Dr. John Powell, who runs the National Athletic Injury Reporting System, in Iowa City, Iowa, there is hardly a difference at all. "The risk pattern in the NFL hasn't changed much in the last decade," he said.

Theismann agrees. "It doesn't seem much different from even back when I started," he said. "The day I started training camp was the last day I was healthy. Injuries are part of the game."

Said Young: "It isn't much worse now. A lot more time is spent now on preventing injuries, staying in shape."

With all due respect, this just doesn't seem right. The NFL has always been brutal, but never did injuries seem as widespread as they are now, such a critical aspect of determining winners and losers. Never did Charles Darwin's lesson -- survival of the fittest -- seem so appropriate.

Forget what the survey says. The great Green Bay and Pittsburgh teams almost never suffered an injury. The good Colts teams almost never had to reshuffle their lineup. Years ago, it was news if a team suffered more than one major injury in a season. Today, rare is the team that goes through a season without a major problem resulting from injuries.

The New York Jets lost most of their secondary last year. The New England Patriots lost most of their linebackers. Both teams had lousy seasons. Everyone else held their breath, hoping the same troubles didn't befall them. They're all holding their breath again this year. The Mean Season has never been meaner.

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