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Several stars lost to inexplicable injuries

They welcomed Joe Gibbs back to the NFL on Monday night with a win and a wince, the Washington Redskins new-old coach securing his first victory in nearly a dozen years in the annual Hall of Fame game, but also learning another difficult lesson under a system that didn't even exist during his first tenure.

When right offensive tackle Jon Jansen went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, the Redskins' line unit took a big hit, and so did the team's salary cap, since the club is still charged full price for the six-year veteran, even though he won't log a single snap now in 2004.

On the latter matter, Gibbs, an admitted salary cap novitiate, likely had a few questions for Redskins front office types. The former element, though, raised even more questions league wide about the number of serious, non-contact injuries sustained through fewer than two weeks of training camps.

By unofficial count, there are already seven players out for the season as the result of injuries suffered either in camp or in workouts directly preceding the start of camps. As has been the case the last few seasons, many of those injuries have occurred in situations where players were not hit.

The litany is lengthy, gruesome, and, in many ways, downright inexplicable. And it's growing by the day.

Even allowing for bad karma, what are the odds that Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the AP offensive rookie of the year in 2003, would tear the meniscus cartilage in his right knee on Tuesday while warming up, for cripes sake? Boldin probably took dozens of molar-rattling hits last season, bounced up every time, and started all 16 games. Suddenly, he's in mid-stretch before the Tuesday practice and his knee pops.

"You've got to wonder, like, 'What gives?' really," said Cardinals starting quarterback Josh McCown. "How does this stuff happen?"

Tough to say. But such "stuff" is occurring with frightening frequency right now. It isn't unusual, even with all the offseason conditioning that has become a part of the training regimen now, to have early camp injuries. In fact, league officials contend this year is no different than most in that regard.

What is unusual is the maddening manner in which injuries have occurred.

"Guys seem to be getting hurt," said Jacksonville defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, "doing nothing, basically."

Jansen ruptured his Achilles in such seemingly innocuous manner that some teammates thought he simply tripped. Wide receiver David Boston of Miami tore the patellar tendon in his left knee merely running a fade route on which he wasn't required to make a hard cut. Tampa Bay guard Matt O'Dwyer tore a pectoral muscle lifting weights. Chicago star middle linebacker Brian Urlacher strained his hamstring in the first camp workout.

Peter Sirmon, the Tennessee Titans' starting strong-side linebacker, underwent season-ending surgery this week to repair an anterior cruciate ligament that tore apart in a non-contact pursuit drill. St. Louis defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy broke his foot doing, well, he really isn't quite sure. In the spring, San Francisco presumptive starting quarterback Tim Rattay sustained a brutal groin injury just rolling out to throw. A week after a torn Achilles recently ended his 2004 season, New England Patriots defensive end Rodney Bailey still can't tell you how the injury occurred.

Most players detest such injuries because they don't feel they have earned the badge of courage that is supposed to accompany any serious physical impairment. People who earn their paychecks with physical prowess, psychological studies have shown, tend to be a lot more impacted when their bodies malfunction. The stress is even more severe when there is no discernable reason, except bad luck, for the dysfunction.

So if you are seeking hard and fast reasons for the recent spate of injuries, well, get in line with the NFL players who would like some clarification as well.

"It's hard to accept no matter what, but to tell the truth, you could maybe (reconcile) it a little better if it happened in a goal-line scrimmage or something," Sirmon acknowledged. "But here I am, just chasing a guy half-speed and, bam, my ACL is shot and my season is gone. That's pretty frustrating."

Equally frustrating for those researchers who track injuries around the league is divining the nature and cause for all the maladies at this early juncture of training camps. Classic football-type injuries, such as ligament damage to the knee, are going to occur because of the nature of the business. The human knee was not constructed to withstand the kind of strain, pressure and torque that the game characteristically imposes. And documentation of more than a decade indicates that, somewhat surprisingly, the number of catastrophic knee injuries has remained relatively constant.

Where the increased infirmity has come, the numbers seem to reflect, is in soft-tissue injuries: muscle pulls, strained hamstrings by the dozens, sore calves, groin injuries. The rise in those categories, some players feel, is in correlation to the increased emphasis on offseason workouts. While the NFL Players Association has worked hard to curtail the number of springtime workouts, and to reduce the rigors of the offseason, veterans contend that their bodies still don't have sufficient recovery time at the end of season.

The suspicion that a lack of physical recovery time contributes to injuries is still based more in perception than empiricism and evidence is largely anecdotal. But many players feel their vacation time is cut short by alleged "voluntary" practices they are pressured by coaches to attend. Fearing they will fall out of favor, and perhaps lose their jobs, players comply with the offseason regimens, and the time for their bodies to truly rebound from the pounding of the previous season is thus compacted.

"We've done a better job of policing and monitoring the offseason routines," said Buffalo cornerback Troy Vincent, who serves as NFLPA president. "But there is still a way to go. But people have to realize, too, (that injuries) are essentially part of the game. No matter how many advances we make, or steps we take, they're going to be a factor. There's just no way to prevent everything."

Noted linebacker Zach Thomas of the Miami Dolphins, who has missed much of camp because of a surgically repaired knee, his injury coming in a non-contract drill before the team even reported for summer sessions: "There are lot of things that are cyclical in this game but the injury element isn't one of them."

The Dolphins have already lost two players, Boston and safety Chris Akins, to season-ending knee injuries.

Perhaps the area most affected by injuries to this point is the offensive line, with at least 10 starting blockers, including four No. 1 right tackles, missing more than a week each. The St. Louis Rams, already minus holdout "franchise" left tackle Orlando Pace, lost right tackle Kyle Turley to a chronic back problem the first day of camp and no one is certain if he will play again. Ongoing concerns about shoulder problems forced Adam Meadows of the Carolina Panthers to retire. And, of course, Jansen, who had never missed a regular-season game, will now sit out the year.

"Probably the only (redeeming) thing in all of this," said Jansen, "is that I know I'll be back next year."

Unfortunately, that's probably the case with camp injuries, too.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.