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Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Injury epidemic can't be ignored

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

One of the biggest stories in 2013 has been injuries.

In Week 16, the problem only escalated. Tony Romo suffered a herniated disk. Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and St. Louis Rams left tackle Jake Long suffered torn ACLs. Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith suffered a PCL knee injury.

Though I include suspensions, NFL teams have had 1,514 missed starts this year. That's more than the 1,428 missed starts for the entire 2010 season. The final count is expected to also exceed the 1,541 total last season, 1,559 in 2011 and 1,532 in 2009.

For the record, I looked at the 22 starting positions and maxed out at 16 for any one position. If an expected starter is hurt before the season and then is cut from the injured reserve list, I don't count his missed games; instead, I track his replacement from the start of the year. If an injured starter comes back but doesn't reclaim his starting job from his replacement (for example, Michael Vick in Philadelphia), then I don't count the original starter's misses.

Reasons for the injuries are many. The expanded period of offseason time in which players are on their own to train has led to more non-contract injuries in organized team activities and training camp. What needs to be studied is whether the limited amount of hitting and tackling in training camp can adequately get NFL bodies ready for the season.

What's clear is that injuries increased since the advent of the new collective bargaining agreement. From 2011, when the new CBA started, the injuries have increased. This year's finally tally should be about 1,650.

Through 15 games, the New York Giants lead the NFL with 87 missed starts. The Oakland Raiders are next with 78. San Diego has 74. New Orleans has 71. Sixteen teams have more injuries than they did through the first 15 games last season.

I hope offseason studies will be done to cut down on the injuries, because the impact of lost starters has changed how teams have performed this season.

From the inbox

Q: Just wondering your take on Peyton Manning still throwing for scores with less than five minutes left of the Denver-Houston game. They had an insurmountable lead (17 points) and could have easily just run it. He was just voted Sportsman of the Year, but this seems unsportsmanlike as he was just running up the score and padding his own personal stats. For the record, he would still have had next week to break the single-season TD record.

Rob in Davenport, Iowa

A: I have no problem with it. It still was only a 24-point victory. I know this might sound silly, but the Texans could have come back. Remember, the Broncos blew a 24-point lead against New England. While the Texans aren't New England, they still had Matt Schaub, who has the potential to mount a comeback. Plus, Manning has been through enough Week 17s in which there was no guarantee he would play because his team was already in the playoffs. On top of everything, it's a coaching decision to change quarterbacks in a game. I don't think John Fox gave it any thought.

Q: With one week of regular-season games to go, do you foresee any team that follows the recent trend in which the supposedly good-but-not-great team gets hot toward end of regular season/start of playoffs and ends up winning the Super Bowl? The past three SB-winning teams (and you can also count the 2005 Steelers) seem to fit that bill. If this year's Steelers, Chargers or Cardinals somehow make playoffs, then either of those teams will have done it by closing its regular season on a serious winning streak.

Sanniyus in Jakarta, Indonesia

A: The San Francisco 49ers, who could be a low seed, are a great team and they could get hot. If the Carolina Panthers lose their finale and the New Orleans Saints get the No. 2 seed, I could see Carolina getting hot in the playoffs as a lower seed. There is more of a chance of a not-so-great team getting hot in the AFC because the AFC is not so great. That could lead to a Cincinnati or Indianapolis getting hot. Despite that, I think home field will be more important in the postseason than it has been in past years.

Q: I've seen a lot of rumors going around about Jon Gruden possibly returning to the Raiders. So as a die-hard Raiders fan, I'd like to ask: Should Oakland just keep Dennis Allen for continuity and give him one more season to see what he can do with a fuller roster or should they fire Allen after the season and try to get Gruden back?

Brandon in Jacksonville, Fla.

A: I struggle to think the Raiders would pony up $9 million to $10 million a year to bring back Gruden. Plus, I think he's going to stay at ESPN regardless. I feel your point on yet another coaching change. The Raiders have been lacking continuity since Gruden's trade to Tampa Bay. They didn't do a good enough job with the draft choices they acquired for him. Then the franchise kept hiring a bunch of first-time coaches who could do no better than getting the Raiders to .500. Raider fans just want to win, baby. The constant change prevents that from happening. My problem in changing coaches this time is I doubt another coach could go in there and do better.

Q: Bill Belichick is a great coach, but at what point do we start to question his drafting ability and/or ability to develop players? A lot of talk has been made about Tom Brady winning despite his supporting cast, but shouldn't the question be, "How has Belichick built this team?" I understand that Aaron Hernandez's arrest changed things, but they have not drafted well.

Steve in Pittsburgh

A: The Patriots have drafted well enough to win the AFC East title, but of late, the drafts have left them more vulnerable to playoff losses. If there is a criticism, I'd offer it's that Patriots scouting is too coach-driven. Belichick will rely on the opinions of college coaches and coaches on his staff instead of the scouting department. You sense that trend when the Patriots take clumps of players out of the same college, one that has a head coach Belichick trusts and respects. Belichick changed the game, though, when he drafted Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, turning to a two-tight end offense that could score 30-plus points a game. He deserves credit for that. The true test of recent drafts on defense will be how many of those choices are signed to extensions. It can't be horrible because the Patriots win so many games, but they are coming up short on Super Bowls, which leaves them open to some criticism.

Q: I don't think Kirk Cousins will be able to show enough to merit a team trading a first-round draft pick in a draft that may be very quarterback-heavy. I can see the Cousins situation playing out very similar to what went on with Matt Flynn. Some QB-desperate team is going to take a flyer on him anyway. Whom do you think that will be, and what will they have to give up?

P.J. in Houston

A: You might be right about Cousins, but it's too early to judge, especially after just a three-game stretch. If Cousins struggles in the season finale against the New York Giants, the best the Redskins might receive in a trade is a second- or third-round pick. The market will be determined by how many quarterbacks are available in the draft. If there aren't enough quality quarterbacks in the draft, a couple of teams might bid on Cousins. A couple of bidding teams could escalate the price over a second-round pick. Many think that the Redskins should keep Cousins because Robert Griffin III might be oft-injured like Michael Vick, who only once has played a full 16-game regular season during his career. The Redskins need better players around Griffin, and a second-round pick could aid the offense. Washington can find a backup quarterback elsewhere, so trading Cousins is the right move.