Injuries are hurting NFL

Pro football: Serious injuries are rising at an alarming rate, but the league says there's no need to panic.

October 23, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When a 220-pound safety, at full sprint, slams into a 215-pound receiver, running with abandon, bad things sometimes happen in the NFL.

Ligaments tear, tendons rupture, brains rattle and bones snap.

Sometimes the players shake it off and shuffle back to the huddle; sometimes they don't. But every time they view the replay, they are reminded of how fortunate they are to play another down.

"I've had many instances, and not only me, where I go back and watch the film and say, `That didn't look good,' " Ravens tight end Todd Heap said, shaking his head. "I cringe when I watch it."

High-speed, big-impact collisions are a harsh reality at all positions in today's NFL. The injuries that follow are often inescapable. The repercussions are sometimes lasting, or, in rare worst cases, even permanent.

The implications are obvious.

"It's auto racing with humans," said the Ravens' Bill Tessendorf, one of the league's most respected head athletic trainers. "It's close contact right in there."

Judging from this season's injured reserve list, the collisions are taking a more costly toll on NFL players than usual. From Week 1 through Week 6, 53 players were sentenced to season-ending injured reserve, a 51.4 percent jump over the number on IR last year at the same juncture (35).

That does not include several dozen players who failed to make it through training camp and wound up on injured reserve.

Several teams have been hit particularly hard, notably the Carolina Panthers, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The most devastating injuries so far include the broken neck vertebra that ended Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon's season - and maybe his career - in Week 3, and the fibula that Carolina receiver Steve Smith shattered in the opening Monday night game of the season.

But injuries in the NFL are often cyclical. A rash of big-name injuries draws sensational headlines that die away quietly when the totals dwindle.

At least, that is the league's position.

"It's still too early in the season to draw any conclusions," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "It may simply be an early-season spike in the numbers. In the 25 years we have been systematically surveying injuries, the injury rate has remained consistent.

"There was no increase in preseason injuries this year. No one has identified a reason for injuries to increase in the regular season. Quite a few players are now returning from injuries. We expect it to look normal by the end of the season, but we will continue to monitor injuries."

The NFL tracks injuries over the course of a year and analyzes the information. While the are no definitive answers for the increase yet, there are a few clues.

One is the grinding, year-round training regimen that brings players to summer camp in midseason shape. Eventually, they start to break down. Another vexing issue is recovery time from serious injury, aided by new technology.

Then there's the obvious: today's players are bigger, stronger and faster.

"Definitely," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said, "the collisions are more violent because of the speed of the game and the size of the players. That has something to do with it."

"Collisions are similar to 20 years ago," said Ken Locker, a former athletic trainer for the Dallas Cowboys from 1973 to 1990 and now the director of sports medicine at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

"The result indicates those collisions are much stronger and more injury causing."

The size and speed of players at all positions has increased significantly over the years. It is no longer a surprise to find a 260-pound quarterback (Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper) or an offensive lineman pushing 400 pounds (Arizona's Leonard Davis, 384).

"When I started [in 1973], a big man in our league was 270 pounds," Tessendorf said. "Now we've got potential fullbacks being 270 pounds, and guys like [340-pound] Sam Adams who've got this quick 20-yard speed."

Dr. Andrew Tucker, medical director of Union Memorial Sports Medicine, has stood on sidelines in Cleveland and Baltimore as team physician for the Browns and Ravens the past 14 seasons. He admits surprise at players' resilience after a violent collision.

"It's a pretty interesting perspective," Tucker said. "I really wonder how those guys can get up after that. Tremendous forces are involved."

Tucker was on the league panel that recently studied head trauma. One conclusion was that the closing speed of players in some collisions approaches 20 mph.

"One of the consultants on the concussion committee has spent a lifetime working in the automotive industry, looking at collisions from the standpoint of auto safety," Tucker said. "He was quite surprised at the violence of [NFL] collisions."

Factors involved with speed are the field surface (players generally run faster on turf as opposed to grass) and shoe-style. The lighter the shoes, the faster the players run. The less protective equipment they wear, the lighter load they pull.

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