Injuries leaving mark on 2011 season

BY Reid Forgrave • November 16, 2011

Ever since training camp, it seems, NFL players have been dropping like flies.

It started with a rash of preseason Achilles tendon injuries across the league. Must be the lockout and the shorter training camps, people muttered. Then the Indianapolis Colts’ marquee quarterback, Peyton Manning, underwent major surgery on his neck, which likely ended his season. Then the Kansas City Chiefs lost tight end Tony Moeaki in the preseason, star safety Eric Berry in the regular-season opener, then star running back Jamaal Charles in the second — all season-ending knee injuries.

As the season wore on, big names kept piling up on injury reports: Michael Vick, Peyton Hillis, Chad Henne, Tim Hightower, Kenny Britt, Darren McFadden, Jason Campbell, Matt Cassel. New York Giants first-round pick Prince Amukamara and much of the team's secondary. Every marquee player on the Houston Texans: Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and former first overall pick Mario Williams.

So the preseason predictions of the pundit-ocracy —– that the lockout-shortened training camps would cause NFL injuries to skyrocket — must have been right.

Right?

Wrong.

A recent study by Kevin Meers of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective shows that the number of NFL injuries up to this point in the season is almost exactly the same as at this point last year. Moreover, the study indicates that the severity of these injuries has increased only slightly over a year ago. And at the midway point of the season, 44 fewer players were on the season-ending injured reserve than at the same point the year before.

Instead, the perceived injury explosion in the NFL has more to do with who has been injured, not how many have been injured.

“It’s the names,” said Will Carroll, an injury expert for Sports Illustrated. “We notice it more when it’s our guy. We notice it more when it’s a big name. We notice more when it’s our fantasy guy. Nobody cares when (Buffalo Bills center) Eric Wood blows out a knee, other than Mrs. Wood and (Bills head coach) Chan Gailey. For most people an injury is a commercial break. They never see it. It’s more about our perception. But when Arian Foster gets hurt, we notice.”

And so, to the fantasy football owners who took Jamaal Charles with the first overall pick, the weekly injury reports are the most dreaded part of the week. To Colts fans, who haven't experienced a season with fewer than 10 wins in a decade, this year seems like the worst ever for injuries. To people who worried when Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis made the cover of the John Madden NFL 2012 video game, this season proves there is such thing as curses.

But some teams have been bitten harder and more often by the perceived 2011 injury bug than any other. For these teams, the Year of the Injury isn’t a mirage at all, but a very real problem that’s hampering their chances. ACL or ankle sprain, concussion or contusion, the most immediate problem with an injury is that you’re starting next week’s game minus one.

What follows is an utterly unscientific and completely debatable look at which 2011 teams have been most bitten by the injury bug. Debatable, at least, until we reach No. 1. Argue with the No. 1 pick and we have a diagnosis: Your NFL debating prowess needs to go on injured reserve.

10. Denver Broncos

Major injuries: Running backs Willis McGahee (questionable for this weekend) and Knowshon Moreno (out for season), both injured in Week 10

Current record: 4-5, tied for second place (which is also last place) in the AFC West

Maybe running backs don't matter. This sounds like a death sentence for a team: Your top running back pulls a hamstring. Later in the game, your second-stringer tears his ACL and is gone for the season. The third-stringer? A running back on his fourth team in four years after going undrafted out of college — and who you waived earlier this season. That didn’t seem to matter last week for the Broncos, whose Tim Tebow-led rushing attack shrugged off injuries to McGahee and Moreno to beat the Kansas City Chiefs. We’ll see how long that lasts.

9. Philadelphia Eagles

Major injury: Michael Vick (concussion in Week 2, broken ribs in Week 10)

Current record: 3-6, tied for last place in the NFC East

Michael Vick takes a hit, and Philadelphia's heart skips a beat. Ask any Eagles fan what they do when their quarterback scrambles out of the pocket. It’s an odd stew of excitement and horror. Vick broke two ribs in the Eagles’ stunning loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week, and he’s reportedly not expected to play this week against the New York Giants. There’s no denying the dude is tough: The injury against the Cardinals happened on Vick’s second play from scrimmage, and he finished the game and ran for 79 yards. But it’s the deal a team has to make when you rely on a playmaker like Vick. He’ll make plays out of nothing, and sometimes he’ll get hurt doing so. Earlier in the year, you might recall, Vick was knocked out of a game against the Atlanta Falcons with a scary concussion after he collided with his own lineman, then spit blood onto the field.

8. Tennessee Titans

Major injury: Kenny Britt (torn ACL, MCL in Week 3)

Current record: 5-4, second place in the AFC South

How are they still 5-4? The player first-year Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck called the best on the team — wide receiver Britt — went down in Week 3 with a knee injury. Britt’s season-ending surgery to his MCL and ACL meant the Titans would miss Britt’s 775 yards and nine touchdowns from his breakout 2010 season. Yet, somehow, the Titans have parlayed the league’s 14th-best passing attack and the NFL’s worst rushing attack into a 5-4 record and second place in the AFC South. Weird game, this NFL.

7. Oakland Raiders

Major injuries: Jason Campbell (broken collarbone in Week 6, likely out for season), Darren McFadden (sprained foot in Week 7, hasn’t played since)

Current record: 5-4, first place in the AFC West

Will this be the "pays off now, hurts ya later" injury? In Week 6, Raiders quarterback Campbell broke his collarbone, an injury that likely will end his season. This seemed like a disaster for the then-surging Raiders. Their backup quarterbacks, after all, were the not-so-reliable Kyle Boller and the unproven Terrelle Pryor.

Then the Raiders moved all their chips to the middle of the table. They traded a first-round draft pick in 2012 and a conditional pick in 2013 to the Cincinnati Bengals for disgruntled-but-still-talented quarterback Carson Palmer in hopes of getting the Raiders into the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 Super Bowl. The impact of Campbell’s injury could be felt years into the future: It could mean the Raiders milk a few great years out of a Pro Bowl quarterback. Or it could mean bankrupting the team’s future for a shot at the playoffs this year.

6. Atlanta Falcons

Major injury: Julio Jones (hamstring problems throughout season, might miss this weekend’s game)

Current record: 5-4, second place in the NFC South

The marquee wide receiver and the tweaked hammy. It’s not just the Falcons. This pick speaks to the wideout/hamstring problem of the NFL. All around the league, the ubiquitous hamstring pull for wide receivers has bedeviled head coaches and sent them screaming at trainers. Andre Johnson, Miles Austin, Jones, Hakeem Nicks: all these marquee names have missed time with hamstring injuries. The guys are tightly wound packages of muscles, accelerating from zero-to-speedy in milliseconds, and those muscles need to be extra loose.

5. St. Louis Rams

Major injuries: Too many to count, including nine cornerbacks placed on injured reserve

Current record: 2-7, last place in the NFC West

The Rams have gone from comeback to the bottom of the pack. In 2010 the St. Louis Rams were one of the comeback stories of the year, going 7-9 and just missing the playoffs after a miserable 1-15 season the year before. The main thrust behind their offense was rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. The top reason why the 2011 Rams are in last place with a 2-7 record? Bradford and his bum ankle. Past the halfway point, Bradford’s at 1,587 yards passing with four touchdowns. A year ago he racked up 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Of course, Bradford’s injury problems have been multiplied by other injuries on the Rams’ offense. Wide receiver Danny Amendola’s season ended in October after elbow surgery. Earlier this month, promising slot receiver Greg Salas’ season ended with a broken fibula. Running back Stephen Jackson and right tackle Jason Smith have both missed significant time. And this week the Rams placed on injured reserve cornerback Al Harris and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui.

4. New York Giants

Major injuries: Their secondary, starting with cornerback Prince Amukamara (broken foot in training camp, hasn’t played since)

Current record: 6-3, first place in the NFC East

The case of missing defensive backs started in the preseason, when the Giants’ highly touted first-round pick, cornerback Amukamara, broke his foot in the second practice. (He has yet to play an NFL game.) And it has appeared that being a defensive back for the 2011 Giants is something no one wants to be, with Terrell Thomas, Bruce Johnson and Brian Witherspoon all suffering season-ending injuries. Pass-rushing machine Osi Umenyiora has started only five games because of injury. Add all these things together — not to mention nagging injuries to Nicks and running back Ahmad Bradshaw — and it’s nothing short of a miracle that the Giants have compiled a 6-3 record, good for first place in the NFC East.

3. Houston Texans

Major injuries: All their marquee names: Arian Foster (hamstring problems at beginning of season), Mario Williams (torn pectoral muscle in Week 5, will miss rest of season), Andre Johnson (hamstring problems, missed six games so far) and Matt Schaub (foot injury in Week 10, might miss rest of season)

Current record: 7-3, first place in the AFC South

If it weren't for their division, these Texans would be in trouble. Can you imagine how good this team would be if it hadn’t lost last year’s top NFL rusher, Foster, for two games with a hamstring injury, then wide receiver stud Johnson for six games (and counting) with a hamstring injury, then former No. 1 pick Williams for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, then injuries on the offensive line, then quarterback Schaub’s possible season-ending foot injury? Why, they’d probably be in first place!

Ahem . . . appears the Texans are, somehow, in first place, their 7-3 record defying the injuries to all their big-name players. This is what happens when you’re in a division with the Manning-less Colts, the Britt-less Titans and the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

Major injuries: Tight end Tony Moeaki, safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles, all lost to torn ACLs. Matt Cassel (hand injury in Week 10, could miss remainder of season)

Current record: 4-5, tied for second place (which is also last place) in the AFC West

It's the ACL curse of Arrowhead. Those poor Kansas City Chiefs. All the buzz from their 10-6 season last year took a dive as soon as their misbegotten 2011 began. Promising tight end Moeaki went down for the year in the final preseason game with a torn ACL. Then safety Berry added his season-ending ACL injury to the insult of their 41-7 loss to the Bills in Week 1. Worse yet, star running back Charles — second in rushing in the NFL last year — tore his ACL in Week 2. Not the way you want to start a year. “They had so many, and so early,” Carroll said.

The Chiefs had seemed to weather those big-name injuries, still hovering around .500 for much of the season — though one would have to think Cassel’s injury to his throwing hand in Week 10 might be the nail in their coffin. Especially since they play the New England Patriots on Monday. And especially since they’ll be starting Tyler Palko at quarterback.

1. Indianapolis Colts

Major injuries: Peyton Manning (neck surgery in September, could miss entire season). Also, Peyton Manning. Did we mention Peyton Manning?

Current record: 0-10, last place in the AFC South

“The Colts to me jump out more than anybody,” former Super Bowl-winning general manager Charlie Casserly replied when asked which team has been most impacted by injuries. In September, Manning had his third neck surgery in less than two years. It was a one-level cervical neck fusion in the aftermath of a surgery earlier in the year to repair a bulging disk. At first, when experts predicted Manning would be back in two months, Dr. Mark Adickes, who won a Super Bowl as an offensive lineman with the Redskins and is now a Harvard-trained orthopedic surgeon, scratched his head: “If he had fusion, the bones don’t heal in adults for at least three months.” Slowly, the timetable increased. Maybe three months. Maybe before the end of the season. Or maybe the injury could send the greatest quarterback in recent memory into an early retirement. “If he were my patient, my advice would be to retire,” Adickes said.

But what’s for sure is this: No single injury has decimated a team like Manning’s decimated the Colts. Sure, the team is old. Sure, the Colts are an oft-injured team, anyway. Conventional wisdom put them around 8-8 or 9-7 going into 2011 after a 10-6 campaign in 2010. But to become the laughingstock of the league, start 0-10, lose a nationally televised game 62-7, lead the way in the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes? It’s been said that Manning’s worth to his team has been proved more this year than in any year that he’s played, and that might be true. What’s not debatable is this: With Manning under center, this would not be an 0-10 team.

Think it’s an incomplete list? Your favorite injured player missing? Want to senselessly argue that another team’s injuries have been more impactful than Manning’s injury has been to the Colts? Tweet @reidforgrave, like him on Facebook or email reidforgrave@gmail.com.



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