Officials concerned with IR increase

The increase of players on injured reserve could be an indicator that some teams are stashing players.

Updated: October 29, 2004, 8:52 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Never spar verbally with Paul Tagliabue, the part-time stand-up comic with a deadpan delivery reminiscent of Stephen Wright and, oh, yeah, a guy whose day job just happens to be serving as NFL commissioner.

Case in point: On Thursday, at the conclusion of a two-day league owners meeting, a veteran reporter who certainly should have known better (think: yours truly), suggested to The Commish that this season represented an anomaly, with total injuries decreased but the number of players on injured reserve rolls significantly on the rise.

An anomaly, shot back the commissioner, as he then proceeded to remind the tiny media assemblage that it was nothing of the sort, since coaches have for years sought out inventive ways for keeping more players on the payroll.

Touché, Tags. My bad.

It was a point well made and, at a fall owners conclave typically devoid of headline news, one worth fleshing out a bit.

Despite public perception to the contrary, the raw numbers on injuries are actually down in 2004, noted Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the NFL's super-influential competition committee. Injuries that have sidelined players for 14 days or more? Reduced. Injuries that have shelved players for at least 42 days? Lessened. In 10 of the 12 categories used by the league to track injuries, in fact, the numbers through the first seven weeks of this season have decreased from a year ago at the same juncture.

Yeah, we know, try telling that to Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox, whose top two tailbacks (Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster) have been in the whirlpool more than in the lineup this season, and whose best wide receiver (Steve Smith) and defensive lineman (Kris Jenkins) are on injured reserve. Or to Green Bay's Mike Sherman, or Miami's Dave Wannstedt and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden, or any other coach whose forward momentum has been impacted this season by injuries.

SIDE LINES
On-Line
Jeff Hartings
Hartings
Vince Wilfork
Wilfork
The matchup between Dallas Cowboys left guard Larry Allen and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers might be a better marquee battle, but there arguably will be no more important interior line tete-a-tete than the tussle that takes place at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon. For the Pittsburgh Steelers to halt the 21-game winning streak of the New England Patriots, they've got to run the football effectively. And to do that, against a defense that has improved dramatically versus the run in recent weeks, Pittsburgh needs a strong game from center Jeff Hartings, who will spend much of the day pounding helmets with Patriots rookie nose tackle Vince Wilfork. It's no coincidence that New England has risen statistically to No. 14 against the run now that Wilfork, the earlier of the Pats' two first-round picks, has settled in as the starter. The former University of Miami star isn't up to the status yet of the man he replacedTed Washington, a great interior force, but Wilfork does have 11 tackles and two sacks. Plus, Wilfork definitely has started to control the middle for longer stretches. Minus the knee problem that bothered him the past two seasons, Hartings is playing very well, and he is typically a strong run-blocker.
The List
Since coach Mike Shanahan arrived in 1995, the Denver Broncos have had nine different tailbacks, none of whom was a first-round draft choice, combine for 79 individual 100-yard performances. The latest, of course, is Reuben Droughns, who goes into Sunday's contest against Atlanta with three straight 100-yard games. Here's a look at those nine:

Player -- 100-yard games
Terrell Davis -- 41
Clinton Portis -- 18
Mike Anderson -- 8
Olandis Gary -- 4
Reuben Droughns -- 3
Quentin Griffin -- 2
Aaron Craver -- 1
Derek Loville -- 1
Glyn Milburn -- 1
Stat of the Week
Neil Rackers
Rackers
Arizona Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers tied a league record last Sunday by converting three field goals of 50 yards or more in an upset victory against Seattle. For his career, Rackers has now converted eight of 11 attempts from 50 yards or more, a gaudy success rate of 72.7 percent. Consider this: Rackers is more accurate from 50 yards or more than he is from 30-39 yards (19-for-29, or 65.5 percent) and 40-49 yards (12-for-24, or 50 percent). In fact, Rackers' conversion rate from 50 yards or longer is better than his 69.2 percent career success rate for all kicks under 50 yards. Two of Rackers' conversions last week were of 55 yards. There are only five kickers in NFL history who made a pair of 55-yard field goals in a season, let alone in a game.
Stat of the Weak
How undermanned are the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers, whose roster has been decimated by injuries? In last Sunday's loss to San Diego, none of the players who lined up in the Panthers backfield, excluding flankers, were drafted into the league. All four -- quarterback Jake Delhomme and running backs Brad Hoover, Nick Goings and Joey Harris -- came into the NFL as undrafted free agents. Carolina is likely to repeat that dubious distinction again this weekend. Even if veteran tailback Brandon Bennett plays against Seattle, a long shot since he was only signed Tuesday and still does not know the offense, the quirk will remain intact, since he, too, came into the NFL as a free agent.
The Last Word
Tommie Harris
Harris
"They'll get money any way they can. It makes you want to walk up to the quarterback before you're about to tackle him, and ask to check out where you can hit him. 'Is it all right if I tackle you here?' Come on, we're playing football here." -- Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris, after being fined $5,000 for a hit on Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese, on a play where the Bears rookie had jumped offsides.
But it's true and the league, which admirably invests a lot of time and money annually in tracking injuries and seeking new safety measures to avoid the most catastrophic of them, has the data to prove it. Almost as intriguing as the decrease in injuries, though, was the second part of the equation, the rejoinder that injured reserve lists are suddenly bloated. Anomaly or not, that's a tidbit of interest, since the league has done a better job in the era of the salary cap of policing injured reserve excesses.

Time was, and you don't have to be too old to recall this, when it was in vogue to hide players with nothing more substantial than a hangnail or a stubbed toe on the league's injured reserve list. In "the day," as they say, the Bobby Beathard-Joe Gibbs tandem in Washington annually stowed away a promising young quarterback on injured reserve. Since just about everyone else in the NFL was hoarding players the same way, and with similarly dubious injuries, the protests were kept to a minimum.

Teams winked at each other and snickered at their shared cleverness, the league put its hands over its eyes, and lots of players clubs deemed too good to simply cut loose earned season-long paychecks for what amounted to redshirt years.

But the advent of the salary cap, the crackdown on injured reserve fraud precipitated by its constraints, and the fact so many teams mishandled the spending limit so poorly that they couldn't afford I.R. players anyway, dramatically reduced the injured reserve rolls. At least, it seems, until this season.

One high-ranking team official who attended the meetings here, but whose last name isn't McKay and who isn't as at ease speaking for attribution, even raised the NFL's despised five-letter word, stash, to describe this year's injured reserve high-jinx. In this official's estimation, the level of injured reserve excess isn't remotely close to what it was during the semi-regulated days of yore. But it does, he acknowledged, bear scrutiny.

"To an extent, some teams have brought back 'stashing,' yeah," he said. "Even with all the steps we've taken to avoid it, the tougher scrutiny, having to get guys by independent doctors and stuff, the art of 'stashing' is making a little bit of a comeback this year."

Make no mistake about it, "stashing" is a term from the past that Tagliabue and his top lieutenants don't want to see become a part of the modern-day NFL lexicon. It holds a kind of tawdry connotation, one that suggests duplicity, deceit and circumvention of the rules. And to invoke the term again is probably, truth be told, to overstate the current situation on injured reserve.

For the most part, after all, players on injured reserve are there with legitimate maladies. And for the most part, coaches would rather have those players on the field instead of in treatment. There is less malice aforethought now than in the past. Then again, as was hinted at the meetings here, there is also more sophistication when it comes to placing players on injured reserve.

And ironically, both Tagliabue and McKay allowed, one component of this year's rise in injured reserve lists is improved control of the salary cap around the league. More teams have available funds than in most seasons. There is, for a change, upgraded wiggle room and less cap squeeze. Those extra funds, in some cases, have permitted franchises to keep more players around on injured reserve.

In the past, many of those players would have been released outright, particularly if their injuries were of a relatively benign nature. Or many teams might have just reached injury settlements with the players and then sent them packing. But if there is sufficient salary cap room, and a coach feels a player can contribute to the team the following season, the player is dumped onto injured reserve and the club retains his rights.

"You've got situations, too, where a team might be really well-stocked at a position," McKay said. "And so instead of keeping an injured player at that position on the active roster, and have him take four or five weeks to rehabilitate, they'll 'I.R.' him. They figure they can get by at that position and still keep the injured player around for next year."

None of this, of course, is an outright affront to the NFL's injury rules. It might represent a slight bending of the guidelines, but there is nothing slight about the heightened number of players on injured reserve. As the commissioner noted: "I've never known a coach who wasn't trying to keep as many players around as he could."

This year, it seems, they've found a way to legitimize the old art of stashing.

Around the league

  • This no doubt falls under the category of "stop me if you've heard this one before," but it was palpably obvious at the league meetings this week that on the list of NFL priorities going back to the lucrative Los Angeles market ranks behind only an extension to the collective bargaining agreement and new television contracts. Even owners who have privately questioned how imperative it is to have a franchise in Los Angeles seemed to be swayed by the reality that the train is now on a pretty fast track and a return to the nation's second largest market is inevitable. "With the exception of (the Carson, Calif.) site, people seem to have their ducks in a row better than they have with some of the other (recent) attempts," said one respected and influential owner. "What I saw and heard here kind of got me off the fence. Can we live without a team there? Sure, we can, yeah. But we'll be a stronger league if we have a franchise there." Of course, the formula for how the NFL will return to the Los Angeles area -- we say area, because Anaheim is in the mix big-time, and that's hardly an L.A. suburb -- hasn't been determined. Truth be told, while they can't publicly say it, several owners to whom we spoke prefer that a current "weak sister" team relocate to Los Angeles rather than placing an expansion club there. Then again, the lack of symmetry that would be created by a 33-team league, an element that is of considerable concern to many NFL and team officials, could be offset nicely by the gaudy franchise fee current owners will split. Just an observation devoid of any scientific survey: Two sites, the Los Angeles Coliseum and Anaheim, have created pretty nice momentum for themselves. The Rose Bowl has some ground to make up. Carson has a pulse but just barely.

  • On the subject of Los Angeles, it was interesting to see Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs, who avoided the media like the plague at the meetings, doing a moonwalk on his recent remarks to Sports Illustrated about the possibility of loading up the moving vans and heading to the Left Coast. Said McCombs: "Let's face it, I would love to be in L.A. But I just can't pick up and go to L.A. That's a league issue. I'm a team player, so I'm not going to test the courts and run off in the middle of the night." The ol' redhead also told SI that he was prepared to exercise the option on coach Mike Tice's contract even if the Vikings didn't win another game the rest of the season. And then, apparently recalling the collapse that followed a 6-0 start in 2003, McCombs quickly backed off those comments, as well. Word is, though, that Tice will be back. But he's going to want, and deserves, a whole lot more than the $750,000 he has averaged since replacing Dennis Green.

  • Steve Spurrier
    Spurrier
    One high-ranking football-type official at the league meetings, a guy whose team might make a coaching change after this season, said he is "under orders" from his owner to monitor the courtship of Steve Spurrier by the University of Florida. "Regardless of what happened (with the Washington Redskins), our owner is still kind of smitten by the guy," said the team official. "It doesn't matter what I think because, believe me, I've been told in no uncertain terms to keep tabs on the Florida situation. I guess that means, if we made a change, our owner would have Spurrier on his short list. I've got my own concerns, but he's the boss." Word is that Florida has given Spurrier two weeks to decide if he wants his old Gators job back. And there are rumblings that former Green Bay assistant Bo Pelini, who was interim coach at Nebraska for a short time last season and currently is the co-defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, would be the man Spurrier sought out to run his defense for him.

  • A few weeks ago, when Baltimore Ravens left offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden was nursing a hamstring injury that forced him to miss one game, we wondered aloud if he might rethink his decision to reject a contract proposal that reportedly would have paid him about $18 million in guaranteed money. OK, so maybe it was merely coincidence that Ogden signed a new, seven-year megadeal on Thursday, as he was being treated for a strained hamstring that will sideline him for three to four weeks. Or maybe the massive Ogden, a member of the three- or four-man elite subset of left tackles, considered his mortality and the potential ramifications of leaving so much money on the table. Keep turning down gaudy offers, today's hamstring injury suddenly turns into, oh, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in December, and that money disappears. Actually, the two sides have been at work on a new deal for months and the Ravens desperately needed to garner some cap relief from their star blocker. The new seven-year deal (not an "extension" as some outlets insist on reporting) is worth about $50 million. It will pay Ogden roughly $34 million in the first four years of the contract, and includes guaranteed money of $20 million or so between the initial signing bonus, a second-tier option bonus and base salaries for the first two years. Beyond retaining an upper-echelon player, who at age 30 still has several productive years remaining, the Ravens get the cap room needed to address a few other veterans, such as tailback Jamal Lewis and possibly middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Under his previous contract, Ogden's base salary for 2005 was to have been $7.2 million, with an unwieldy salary cap number in excess of $17 million. The cap number was even bigger in '06, when Ogden was due a base salary of $8.75 million. It was, given Ogden's individual brilliance and the Ravens' need to have him around, just a matter of time until a deal was struck. That the time came when Ogden was injured, though, was interesting.

  • Shaun Rogers
    Rogers
    On the subject of contracts, the Detroit Lions would love to complete a deal that keeps defensive tackle Shaun Rogers around for many more years, and no one can blame them for that. With Kris Jenkins of Carolina on injured reserve, the consensus around the NFL is that Rogers, just a fourth-year veteran, is now the league's premier interior defender. "He's a monster," allowed New York Giants guard Jason Whittle after last Sunday's loss to the Lions. "Just about everything they do revolves around him mashing people in the middle. He makes everyone around him more effective because he commands so much of your attention." Because of injuries during his senior season at the University of Texas, Rogers slipped to the second round of the 2001 draft and the Lions were able to steal him. Now, in the final season of his original rookie contract and eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, Detroit isn't going to be able to keep Rogers around with any bargain-basement deals. He's at the top of a lot of teams' early free agency wish lists, which is why the Lions keep working to complete a deal.

  • Another young defensive tackle suddenly beginning to play up to his potential is New York Jets second-round veteran Dewayne Robertson. Despite last week's defeat at New England, the 2003 first-rounder, and fourth overall player chosen in that draft, might have played the best game of his career. Robertson made five tackles and a sack, pushed the Pats interior blockers around much of the day and generally disrupted. Then again, the youngster wasn't nearly as bad as a rookie (69 tackles and 1½ sacks) as the media made him out to be. Robertson has, however, matured significantly this season. And now that the Jets coaches aren't using him quite as much on the nose, he is starting to make plays. Coach Herm Edwards suggested this week that Robertson is a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Personnel directors around the league, several of whom attempted to move up in the '03 draft for a shot at Robertson, agree with that assessment.

  • One former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle, Daryl Gardener, was essentially forced into retirement this spring by back problems. No one should be surprised if his onetime Dolphins tackle running mate, Tim Bowens, suffers the same fate. Bowens was placed on injured reserve earlier this week with a herniated disk and, while the injury might not require surgery, there are no guarantees he will return in 2005. Bowens was once a model of durability, playing in 142 of 144 games at the outset of his career, and earning a pair of Pro Bowl trips. But the back problem has laid him low this season and Bowens, the last player on the Miami roster with ties to the Don Shula regime, mentioned even before the start of the '04 campaign that he was considering retirement. The loss of Bowens means that right end Jason Taylor is the lone starter remaining for the Dolphins from their standout defensive line of 2003. Left end Adewale Ogunleye was traded to Chicago and tackle Larry Chester, like Bowens, is on injured reserve.

  • Jason Ball
    Ball
    Here's hoping Dolphins officials performed their due diligence on Jason Ball this week before claiming the former San Diego Chargers center on waivers. Ball, you may recall, sat out the entire offseason in a contract dispute, even though the third-year veteran had zero leverage with the Chargers since he was a so-called "exclusive rights" player. The move cost him nearly $90,000 of his $380,000 base salary, his starting job and then his roster spot. Pretty good judgement on Ball's part, huh, and that of his agent? Teammates also continue to suggest that Ball's offseason behavior was erratic, that he dropped out of sight for a while and was difficult to contact. In short, Ball wasn't exactly a model of stability. A two-year starter in San Diego, he's still young enough to get his career back on course, but he'll begin his stint in Miami as a backup.

  • Tough but probably necessary move for the Carolina Panthers this week, who abruptly released special teams standout Jarrod Cooper after the safety again ran afoul of the law. The popular Cooper, according to police records, was arrested Oct. 22 while driving with a revoked license and an expired registration. In 2002, the four-year veteran was charged with battery. While still on probation for that charge, Cooper was arrested for speeding, driving without a license and possession of two controlled substances. Following the second arrest, the NFL fined Cooper six game checks totaling $137,000 and suspended him for four games. Owner Jerry Richardson made it clear, after the spate of off-field problems that embarrassed the franchise a few years ago, he would not tolerate such behavior. The Panthers released standout right offensive tackle Chris Terry two years ago after a domestic dispute and now Cooper is gone because of his indiscretions.

  • Tampa Bay officials have quietly broached to strong safety Jermaine Phillips, in his first full season as a starter, the possibility of a contract extension. Phillips replaced John Lynch as the starter. Phillips is viewed as a more talented all-around athlete than his predecessor, and many in the league think he will be a top 10 safety within a year or two. The safety market is always among the slowest and lowest-paying in the league, but the Bucs staff believes that Phillips can become a special player, and Tampa Bay would like to secure his services for the long term.

  • Punts: Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson will use Jon McGraw, the former starter at free safety, in a three-man rotation with starters Reggie Tongue and Erik Coleman this week. McGraw lost his position to Coleman when he was injured, but now could eventually replace Tongue, whose play has slipped in recent weeks. … In another safety move, Cleveland has demoted starting free safety Earl Little and replaced him with second-year veteran Chris Crocker. Originally drafted as a cornerback, Crocker has been playing inside in "sub" coverage packages, demonstrated nice range, and an obvious big-play mentality. … Benched last week by coach Tom Coughlin, Giants weak-side 'backer Barrett Green is back among the starters, sort of. Green will play in the Giants' "base" 4-3 defense. Nick Greisen, who started last week and played very well in a loss to Detroit, will replace Green in "nickel" situations. … As is his wont this time of year, Eagles team president Joe Banner is working on several contract extensions. The team signed young wideout Greg Lewis to a five-year extension on Thursday and Banner told ESPN.com there are a few more deals in the works. Interestingly, those deals, at least for now, do not include an extension for defensive tackle Corey Simon, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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