Many teams already in a world of hurt
After two years of relative good heath, injuries appear to be piling up at an alarming rate throughout the league, writes Len Pasquarelli.
One month into the season, and for several teams and at some positions, the 2007 campaign already has become a bloody war of attrition.
After two seasons in which the meticulously compiled NFL in-house figures decreased from the alarming levels of 2004, injuries appear to be on the rise again this year, at least judging from the bulging rolls of the league's injured reserve list. In just four weeks, the average for players already on injured reserve and lost for the season is already at 4.6 per franchise.
Every week, it seems, the hits keep coming.
"And the hurts seem to keep coming, too," said Buffalo Bills linebacker Angelo Crowell, whose team has seven players on injured reserve and gone for the year, and several other key players who have been or will be out of the lineup for prolonged stretches. "To have a rash of injuries right out of the gate like this, it's hard to [fathom]."
It is a bit lacking at the QB position, which could change given the status of 49ers starter Alex Smith's shoulder injury, but one could field a fairly respectable lineup from among the 149 players currently on injured reserve leaguewide. Here's a look:.
Offense WR -- Brian Finneran, Atlanta
WR -- Michael Jennings, N.Y. Giants
LT -- Orlando Pace, St. Louis
LG -- Ben Hamilton, Denver
C -- Steve McKinney, Houston
RG -- Jason Whittle, Buffalo
RT -- Jon Jansen, Washington
TE -- Mark Campbell, New Orleans
QB -- D.J. Shockley, Atlanta
FB -- Mike Alstott, Tampa Bay
RB -- Deuce McAllister, New Orleans Defense LE -- Ebenezer Ekuban, Denver
LT -- Jason Ferguson, Dallas
RT -- Anthony McFarland, Indianapolis
RE -- Chike Okeafor, Arizona
SLB -- Rob Morris, Indianapolis
MLB -- Paul Posluszny, Buffalo
WLB -- Matt Stewart, Cleveland
CB -- Justin Miller, N.Y. Jets
CB -- Chad Scott, New England
FS -- Mike Brown, Chicago
SS -- Yeremiah Bell, Miami
As of Tuesday, there were 149 players on injured reserve. That count does not include players on the physically unable to perform or the nonfootball injury lists, or any of the NFL's various other reserve-list classifications. That's the equivalent of nearly three full 53-player rosters already laid up for all of 2007.
If that seems like a lot, well, it does to some longtime NFL observers as well.
"My perception is like yours, that there have been a lot [of injuries], especially for so early in a season," said Atlanta Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay, co-chairman of the influential competition committee. "We don't know what the numbers are yet, and we won't for a while. The last two years, the [injury statistics] were down. But, yeah, at first glance this season, it seems like it's been pretty bad."
The league annually compiles very precise statistics on types of injuries and the number of players forced onto injured reserve, but those have not yet been tabulated for this early juncture of the season. The competition committee, McKay said, probably will get an update sometime late this month, at about the halfway point of the season.
So for now, perception and unofficial injury counts are the only markers available. But the perception clearly is, as McKay noted, that the 2007 season is off to a limping start.
The ESPN.com survey showed that 13 franchises currently have five or more players on their injured reserve lists, and nine clubs have seven or more. Houston leads the league with 11 players on IR, and the New York Giants have 10. Only 10 teams, by contrast, have three players or fewer on the injured reserve list, and Pittsburgh is the lone franchise with none. All of the figures were gleaned from current rosters listed on team Web sites, or from independent sources that monitor injured reserve lists.
Of course, the reserve lists are just the tip of the injury ice pack, and are indicative only of long-term injuries. The Bills, for instance, have several players not on injured reserve, but who have suffered significant injuries that cost them considerable playing time. In last Monday night's loss to New England, the Cincinnati Bengals were forced to play a nickel and dime package for the final three quarters of the contest after in-game injuries further thinned a linebacker corps that was already severely depleted.
"I don't think that I've ever been associated with such a [high] number of injuries on one team and at such an early point of any season," Buffalo general manager Marv Levy said of his team's plight.
There are probably officials from other teams, too, who share that sentiment. What cannot be known yet, however, is if perception is truly reality, and if 2007 really has the makings of an injury-filled campaign, or if the first month was merely an aberration.
What will be interesting, when the league disseminates its data to the competition committee and subsequently to all its teams, is whether the experts discern any new patterns to the spate of injuries in 2007. Because while the perception is that injuries have risen, there isn't a particular category of injury that has spiked. Indeed, scan the injured reserve lists, and the notations next to the names of the wounded are representative of the norm.
There is the standard collection of torn anterior cruciate ligaments, ruptured patella tendons, torn Achilles tendons, separated shoulders and broken bones. There is also the usual assortment of so-called "soft tissue" injuries -- hamstring pulls, strained groins, damaged calves -- but those generally don't land a player on injured reserve. The league has attempted to address some of the soft-tissue issues in limiting offseason workouts.
One somewhat surprising component to the ESPN.com survey, which admittedly is only a cursory snapshot of the NFL's big-hurt big picture, is the number of defensive backs who are on injured reserve. There are 30 safeties and cornerbacks on IR, representing the most players from any position.
"A lot of it comes," said Chicago free safety Mike Brown, who sustained a season-ending anterior cruciate tear in the Bears' opening game, "from the kind of change of direction that is part of the position. It's a stop-and-start position. You can be coming up one minute to [support against] the run, and then backpedaling into coverage the next. You put a lot of pressure on knees and joints in those situations."
As usual, there are also a lot of offensive linemen, 28, a position where operating in close quarters and with bodies falling on players' legs, characteristically precipitates injuries just by the nature of the job. Another high-risk position, running back, numbers 23 players on IR. And just to show that injuries occur across the board and without prejudice, there are five specialists, kickers and return men, on injured reserve.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.