Officials concerned with IR increase
The increase of players on injured reserve could be an indicator that some teams are stashing players.
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.
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
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
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
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .