Is NFL experiencing injury epidemic?

Critics believe quality of play is down, but depth -- not injuries -- is the likely culprit

Originally Published: November 27, 2013
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com

The Green Bay Packers' third-team quarterback takes a snap from the fourth-string center and throws to the team's No. 4 receiver. This is not a preseason game, but instead a key November matchup with playoff implications, one the Packers will lose to the Eagles.

The Seattle Seahawks open a game with their left guard playing left tackle, a third-string lineman starting at right tackle and a backup at left guard. Quarterback Russell Wilson, one of the game's most elusive players, is sacked seven times as the Seahawks manage 14 points in a slim victory over the St. Louis Rams.

The Chicago Bears finish a game with quarterback Jay Cutler and three Pro Bowl defensive players sidelined by injury. The Washington Redskins' previously anemic offense slices through the Bears' backups for nearly 500 yards in a 45-41 victory.

Ghastly personnel tales have peppered the NFL's landscape this season, spawning reactions ranging from dark humor to panic to disgust. So let there be no doubt: You are not alone if you think injuries are up and quality of play is down in 2013.

"We're seeing a lot of players hurt," analyst Ron Jaworski said recently on ESPN Radio. "You're seeing a lot of new players going out on the field, not ready to play, not in condition to play. And you're seeing bad football and a lot of injuries right now."

While not inaccurate, that sentiment does not complete the story. Injury totals have in fact risen this season, albeit less dramatically than it might seem, and there have been some glaring instances of poor play as a result. But an analysis of data and interviews with NFL observers suggests the underlying issue rests not with raw injury totals but with who is getting hurt and the state of depth behind them.

"I'm not sure injuries are the issue as a blanket statement," said longtime NFL general manager Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "But player development is the one area we have fallen very far behind where we once were. I don't think there is any question we've gone backward there. It doesn't manifest itself on the field until you're playing your third offensive tackle, or your No. 3 quarterback has to play. And there, in those cases, we've seen it."

If anything, the 2013 season has brought to critical mass an issue that has accelerated with the reduction of offseason training periods. The NFL might not have an injury problem as much as it has a crisis of depth, especially at -- but not limited to -- the quarterback position.

Let's take a closer look at what has happened and conclude with some suggestions for reversing the trend.

Aaron RodgersAP Photo/Morry GashInjuries to Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers have helped turn the NFC North race into a battle of attrition.

The state of NFL health

There is no golden tool for quantitatively measuring injuries, but we can take several points of data to develop a credible snapshot. The chart above shows that after Week 12, there were 265 players on injured reserve, a figure that includes those who will be waived when injury settlements conclude.

When you compare that total with what we've seen after 12 weeks in previous seasons, you see a modest increase. (Data courtesy of ESPN's Roster Management System.)

Injured reserve tells only a partial story, of course, because it doesn't account for those who are healthy enough to remain on the active roster while they rehabilitate. A more encompassing analysis is missed starts, which are up about 14 percent this season based on a database maintained by ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton. New concussion protocols almost certainly have contributed to that escalation.

The NFL's competition committee analyzes similar numbers every offseason, from season-ending injuries to missed starts to missed practices. Polian spent two decades as part of that group and cautioned against cementing a theory before the end of a season.

When he was with the Indianapolis Colts, in fact, Polian conducted an injury study of seven seasons under coach Tony Dungy. Among other things, the analysis revealed that injury totals typically spiked in Week 9 and slowed down thereafter.

"And that reflected what we saw in subsequent years and also what the competition committee saw for the league," Polian said. "To say anything definitive right now is purely conjecture."

There is no denying, however, that certain segments of the injury story are alarming. For instance, more players have already been placed on injured reserve because of confirmed ACL tears (38) than in all of 2012 (32) or 2011 (25), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Meanwhile, nine quarterbacks went on injured reserve in the first 10 weeks of the season, the second-highest total in 15 years at that point in the season. (Ten quarterbacks went on injured reserve before Week 11 of the 2008 season, including Tom Brady and Alex Smith.) Forty-eight players have made at least one start at quarterback through 12 weeks. (A total of 47 quarterbacks got at least one start in all of in 2012.) Seven teams have started two quarterbacks this season, and five more have started three. Meanwhile, there are countless bits of anecdotal evidence to fortify concerns:

• For a Week 10 game against the Redskins, the Minnesota Vikings had more players unavailable due to injury than they had spots on their seven-man list of inactive players. So they dressed only 44, two short of the limit, and that included No. 3 quarterback Josh Freeman. Coach Leslie Frazier felt compelled to take timeouts at the end of the game to rest his defense, even though it aided the Redskins' comeback attempt.

• The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lost their top two tailbacks to season-ending injuries and are currently starting Bobby Rainey, whom they claimed on waivers last month from the Cleveland Browns.

• The New England Patriots are playing with a significant hole in their defense, having lost nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo over a three-week period. Sunday night, the Patriots allowed 280 rushing yards to the Denver Broncos.

The NFL has worked hard to legislate some injuries out of the game, most notably via new rules to protect quarterbacks in the pocket. But Dr. Mark Adickes, a former NFL player who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Houston, suggested a level of physiological inevitability.

"Quite simply, guys are getting bigger, stronger and faster," Adickes said. "If you're getting bigger, stronger and faster, then as you run or even just move around, if muscles aren't firing just right, you'll see forces that can't be withstood without an injury."

Adickes downplayed theories that suggest artificial turf and even poor shoe selection as broad-based causes of NFL injuries. He did, however, endorse a circulating theory that reduced football activities in the offseason -- as mandated by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement -- are a contributing factor.

"Certainly you could say that the lack of game-speed conditioning makes you more susceptible to injuries during games," he said. "But I do think that could be eliminated with something as simple as more extensive pregame warmups."

Injuries have always been part of the NFL. In the big picture, it is routine to see backup players taking on more prominent roles during the season. So why, in 2013, has the annual transition from starters to backups created so much angst?

Jerod MayoAP Photo/Stephan SavoiaAn injury to Jerod Mayo forced a retooling of a Patriots defense already without Vince Wilfork.

Defining "quality of play"

Before answering that question, let's try to understand the angst. What did Jaworski mean when he said he has seen "a lot of bad football" this season? What was fellow ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer referring to when he said this month that the "NFL product sucks?" How do you measure "quality of play?" And to what extent has it been impacted by injuries in 2013?

To be sure, "quality" is a subjective measure dependent at least in part on the observer's point of view.

"To me, that's all anecdotal," Polian said. "Typically, if you're a fan whose team is playing its third left tackle of the season, sure, you're going to bemoan the quality of the play that you're seeing. Why? Because your team is playing its third left tackle. But overall, and I have looked at this very closely for years, I really don't see much change this year.

"Look, what does everyone want?" Polian added. "You want offensive efficiency to grow. We're an offensive league. People want points and offense. That is continuing to grow."

[+] EnlargeSage Rosenfels
Tom Dahlin/Getty ImagesSage Rosenfels was allowed to develop as a No. 3 QB and became a dependable backup for many seasons.

Indeed, entering Week 12, teams are averaging 23.3 points per game in 2013, up from 22.8 points in 2012 and 22.2 in 2011. Moreover, according to STATS, the league is on pace for a single-season record of 46.7 combined points per game. If they stand, the league averages for completion percentage (61.3), passer rating (86.5) and touchdown-interception ratio (1.64) would also set records.

Many informed observers, however, see two relatively recent drop-offs: quarterback depth and defensive technique. Together, they have provided a broad canvas to criticize the aesthetics of football in 2013.

"Offensively, the game is great if you like seeing the ball thrown around," said Louis Riddick, an ESPN analyst who played defensive back for six seasons in the NFL and was a director of pro personnel for two teams. "But defensively, quite honestly, there are only a few teams that I see these days that, when I watch them play, remind me of what I'm used to seeing in the NFL.

"The quality of play is down defensively," he added. "This offensive explosion in the colleges and the pros, those advances have not been met with equal and opposite resistance from the defensive side. There has been too much emphasis placed on having as much as possible in your defensive playbook to combat these schemes instead of teaching what is in the playbook. You're seeing some very, very unsound fundamental play, especially in coverage, and it's obvious to anyone who is watching it. It's more difficult to play defense now, but it's not impossible, because you're seeing some teams do it well."

Most alarming, however, has been the impact of injuries and ineffective play on the quarterback position. Even though leaguewide passing numbers remain up, this season has revealed a stunningly thin pool of qualified candidates. The effect has been cascading over a number of years, according to Sage Rosenfels, who retired this year after 10 seasons as an NFL backup.

"The best coaches I ever had always said that a team goes by the way of its quarterback," Rosenfels said. "If he practices well, it's a good practice. If he practices bad, it's a bad practice. So when starters go down, the quality of play is going to be worse."

EJ Manuel Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsAfter EJ Manuel went down on Oct. 3, the Bills turned to Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel to start under center.

The relatively recent trend many teams have adopted of putting the No. 3 quarterback on the practice squad, Rosenfels said, has stunted development and left teams with fewer quality options when injuries strike. The Buffalo Bills, for example, were so barren after injuries to starter EJ Manuel and backup Kevin Kolb that they promoted Thad Lewis from their practice squad to start three games and then used undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel when Lewis was injured.

"So many teams have eliminated the third quarterback spot on the active roster," Rosenfels said. "It was a development position, not so much to find a new starter but to at least have a competent backup in a few years. Being on the practice squad is not the same as being the third quarterback, and I don't think people recognize that. Not dressing for games, not going through the weekly routine the same way, being part of the action on game day, that's a big deal. And it's all because teams are looking for one extra roster spot. It's hard to understand."

That's exactly what the Packers have done behind Aaron Rodgers in recent years, but this summer they gave up on the backup they had been grooming behind him. Graham Harrell was released just before the season began, sparking a personnel scramble that has contributed to the Packers' 0-3-1 record since Rodgers fractured his collarbone.

Head coach Mike McCarthy is known as one of the NFL's best quarterback teachers, but for two years he has bemoaned the loss of his famed offseason "Quarterback School," which the new CBA rendered inert. During the offseason, McCarthy campaigned to have the rules relaxed for specific cases.

"You'd like to see [that] adjusted because the opportunity to train quarterbacks should be starting in March," McCarthy said. "That's a different position; the responsibilities, the volume of it is a lot more than any other position."

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Seneca Wallace
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMike McCarthy turned to Seneca Wallace at QB when Aaron Rodgers was injured. When Wallace went down, it was time for Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn.

Bills coach Doug Marrone, whose team has almost as many starting quarterbacks (three) as it does wins (four) this season, is resigned to his fate. He recently quoted Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said, "Growth comes with experience." Added Marrone, "Someone told me that, and I was thinking to myself, 'That's exactly right.'"

There might be no better symbol for the NFL's decaying quarterback depth than the 2013 journey of Freeman, who opened the season as one of perhaps a dozen so-called franchise quarterbacks in the league. His clash with Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano led to a Week 5 release, and within days he signed with the Vikings -- who seemed eager to end their three-year project of developing Christian Ponder.

New to the offense and probably rattled by his career course, Freeman took the field 13 days later and turned in an awful performance. He completed only 20 of 53 passes in a "Monday Night Football Game" against the New York Giants, overthrowing 16 passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I've never seen a quarterback play as badly as Josh Freeman did against the Giants," Polian said. "It was pathetic, and it wasn't even professional. Do we need quarterback development? You bet we do."


A solution?

It's fair to ask how that can happen, of course. The CBA's limitations on offseason work, as well as contact in training camp and during the season, aren't likely to be reversed. Polian's suggestion is to revive a domestic version of NFL Europe, which folded in 2007 because it reportedly was losing $30 million annually.

Polian is confident that a North American-based league "could be profitable in three years" but acknowledged that a formal partnership with an existing league -- either the Canadian Football League or the Arena League -- could also meet the NFL's needs.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
AP Photo/Srdjan PetrovicThe NFL could greatly benefit from a revival of NFL Europe, which allowed players such as Kurt Warner to hone their skills in a developmental atmosphere.

"We need a place where younger players can get the work they need," Polian said. "And that's with game experience, more time working with coaches and the like."

Player development, Riddick said, has become the forgotten connection between the draft and in-season production.

"What you do with a player, from the time his name is called in the draft and when he gets onto the field, that's really where teams and coaches earn their money," Riddick said. "On a large scale, people don't really understand how detailed that is. … Football is a rep business. The more reps you get, the better you are."

Changes in the college game, according to Rosenfels, have made it less appropriate as the NFL's de facto minor league.

"So many schools are running offenses that don't carry over to the NFL at all," he said. "You've got these young guys coming out of spread offenses, the zone read, running the ball, and they're stepping into pro-style offenses, and they're not ready for it."

NFL coaches have shifted their schemes to match those skills, but that shift has contributed significantly to this season's quarterback injuries. Of the eight preferred starters who have missed time this season, six were injured while running.

Not all of them were elite players, of course, and the talent drop-off to their backups isn't as notable as the drop-off in preparation. Almost certainly, the NFL isn't likely to reduce its injury total anytime soon, so it might have to focus on increasing the quality of its talent pool. That might be the best, and only, solution to "bad football."

ESPN.com Green Bay Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Buffalo Bills reporter Mike Rodak contributed to this report.

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