SALT LAKE CITY — The pandemic has postponed games and emptied stadiums and put masked men on the sidelines, but it might have produced another side effect. Injuries have been the story of the first four games of the season — OK, along with COVID-19.
When 22 large, powerful men collide on a field, injuries result — it’s the great flaw of the game — but this season they have reached epidemic proportions.
Some 181 players are on injured reserve — a designation that means the players will miss anywhere from three weeks to the remainder of the season.
Not only does there seem to be an inordinate number of injuries, they seem to be striking many of the game’s best players.
In a single afternoon, the 49ers lost five of their best players to injuries — Nick Bosa (knee), Jimmy Garoppolo (ankle), Raheem Mostert (knee), Tevin Coleman (knee injury) and Solomon Thomas (knee). Two are out for the season. On the same day, Christian McCaffrey, the NFL’s best offensive player, and Saquon Barkley, one of the game’s best running backs, were sidelined by ankle and knee injuries, respectively, the latter for the rest of the season.
Injuries have also sidelined star players Julio Jones (hamstring), Davante Adams (hamstring), Kenny Golladay (hamstring), Miles Sanders (hamstring), Austin Ekeler (hamstring), Le’Veon Bell (hamstring), George Kittle (knee), A.J. Brown (knee), Chris Godwin (concussion), Marlon Mack (Achilles), Von Miller (ankle), Richard Sherman (Achilles), Leighton Vander Esch (clavicle), Nick Chubb (knee), Courtland Sutton (knee), and, well, you get the idea.
If only a mask could protect players from hamstring pulls.
It’s tempting to attribute this outbreak of injuries to offseason preparations that were restricted by pandemic protocols. Social-distancing requirements closed team facilities, banned or restricted group workouts, canceled minicamps and exhibition games and shortened training camp. The players couldn’t even utilize public gyms; they were closed, too.
This forced players to find creative (and seemingly less effective) ways to prepare for the season. Center Cesar Ruiz told Sports Illustrated he resorted to body-weight exercises instead of weightlifting. According to ESPN, wide receiver James Washington caught passes from a Jugs machine.
Several players turned to family members for their workouts. The Patriots’ Matthew Slater used his children as “human weights.” “Sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly, I hoist them up and put them to work,” Slater said on the online show “Huddle Up!” “You got to get creative as possible.”
According to ESPN, the Saints’ Malcolm Jenkins walked up and down steps with his daughters on his shoulders, and the 49ers’ Kyle Juszczyk tied a rope around his waist and pulled his wife through the snow as she stood on a boogie board.
Panthers receiver Curtis Samuel caught passes on his neighborhood street from a Jugs machine operated by his mother.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins trained in his parents’ driveway with his wife and two sons.
“(Every passing car will) see me doing my shuffles across the driveway … or doing the jump-rope or different plank exercises, core work, medicine ball, lunges — whatever it may be. And different people honk or wave, so it’s kind of fun,” Cousins told ESPN.
Many put part of the blame for the injuries on synthetic turf — especially the MetLife Stadium that serves as home for the Giants — but games have been played on such surfaces for decades and not all this year’s injuries were played on artificial grass. It seems more likely connected to the offseason training limitations.
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that following the 2011 lockout, in which there were no minicamps or OTAs (organized team activities), there was an increase in Achilles injuries immediately after the lockout ended. Fittipaldo noted there were “12 Achilles’ tendon ruptures in the first 29 days after the lockout versus 16 in the previous two years combined.”
Players’ offseason training routines were even more limited this year. “We were put in a tough situation,” Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick told the Post-Gazette. “Even though all of us have been playing football for our entire lives, we still need that time to acclimate our bodies to that ground and pound, especially our tendons and ligaments, stuff you have to condition.
“If your body isn’t conditioned to it … if a running back goes out there and runs the ball 20 times and gets beat up, that’s tough. You’re definitely going to see a lot of injuries across the board.”
As the season wears on and bodies become more acclimated to the grind of the game, maybe the injury rate will decline. If not, this will be a memorable season for all the wrong reasons.