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Inside Slant: Big spike in ACL injuries

10/23/2013

After a staggering weekend of injuries, @JTERIOS sent this question to the our Daily Rap chat: "It seems like a lot of acl's are being torn this year. Am I just now noticing, or is there an increase?"

At the time I was still seeking out documentation, but I have it now and it's as staggering as you might imagine. The bottom line: 30 players have already been placed on injured reserve this season because of confirmed torn ACLs, a pace that has already exceeded the total for all of 2011 and has nearly done the same for 2012.

That's right. In all of 2011, according to StatsPass.com via ESPN Stats & Information, confirmed ACL injuries sent 25 players to injured reserve. The figure was 32 in 2012. Those numbers do not include players who suffered a torn ACL but were waived/injured rather than placed on injured reserve.

(Special thanks to ESPN researcher Rachel Eldridge for researching and cross-checking this information.)

Even if this year's pace slows, which everyone hopes it does, the 2013 season is well on its way to producing the highest frequency of confirmed torn ACL injuries in recent memory. Those numbers are indisputable. The more difficult question is understanding why.

Two theories jump to mind, but neither are perfect by any means.

First, the continuing focus on eliminating helmet-to-helmet contact has in at least some cases prompted defenders to direct their contact to the lower legs. In the most high-profile incident, Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller tore his ACL and two other ligaments when Houston Texans defensive back D.J. Swearinger hit him low in a preseason game.

League officials have said they will monitor the frequency of leg injuries in conjunction with their efforts to discourage head shots. The ACL figures, of course, don't include injuries such as the one Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb suffered in Week 6, when he broke his leg on a low hit from Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam.

But any close observer would also note the frequency of non-contact ACL injuries this year, starting in training camp and bringing us to a second theory making its rounds among NFL teams. Have new limitations on offseason football work left players less conditioned for it when training camp arrives? Cardiovascular and muscle strength are important, but some traditionalists have suggested that football activities place unique trauma on the body, leaving ligaments more vulnerable to injury when not exposed to football movements over extended periods of time.

If that's the case, we'll see a drop-off in torn ACLs, at least in non-contact instances, as the season progresses and ligaments are re-conditioned to football movements. I'm sure there are other potential explanations as well. But there is no disputing the facts. Your eyes have not deceived you: ACL injuries are in fact occurring at a high rate this season.