The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NFL’s stars are falling in injury-plagued preseason. It’s nothing new.

The NFL has seen a number of players carted off with injuries that will end their season before it’s even begun. (Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP, File)
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The season-ending injuries have come in relatively rapid succession of late for some NFL players who were integral to their team’s plans for this year. From standout wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin of Carolina and Jordy Nelson of Green Bay to would-be significant defensive contributors like Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick and pass-rushing Washington Redskins linebacker Junior Galette, players have been left facing surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation stints. Teams have been left scrambling to rework plans and patch together lineups.

Some observers have renewed calls for the NFL to reexamine its preseason policies, asking whether a four-game exhibition season along with so many practices during the offseason and in training camps really are needed to ready for the regular season.

[Steinberg: You can get hurt and not blame the preseason]

But the league and the NFL Players Association say they see nothing unusual or alarming to this point about the number of injuries suffered by players this summer. Some experts say the injuries, while disheartening to the players and teams involved, simply reflect the risks inherent to the sport any time players step on a field whether it’s for a practice, a preseason game or the real thing during the regular season.

“It’s the normal course of the sport,” former Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman said. “Everyone wants to blame something. Everyone wants to blame the game. But you don’t know all the factors. You don’t know how much work any of these guys put into training in the offseason. When you get to camp, it’s a shock for the body.”

The league and union track injury data closely but generally focus on long-term trends, not short-term issues. An NFL official said it was too soon to draw any conclusions about the number of knee injuries involving the anterior cruciate ligament suffered by players this summer.

Thom Mayer, the medical director for the NFLPA, expressed similar sentiments.

[Moneyball 2.0: Keeping players healthy]

“As a physician, your heart goes out to these guys,” Mayer said in a telephone interview Thursday. “You feel so bad for them. These guys put so much into this and it’s such a letdown for them, for their teams, for the fans. [But] as a research scientist, you have to say, ‘Let’s look at this over time.’ Statistically it doesn’t look like it’s a trend.

“Unless it continues at this pace for some time, it doesn’t look like anything out of the norm. But for each of these guys individually, it’s 100 percent of their experience. It’s a setback professionally and it’s very difficult personally.”

Benjamin, Nelson and Scandrick suffered torn ACLs. Galette suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon.

Nelson was hurt during a preseason game. Benjamin, Scandrick and Galette suffered their injuries during practices.

“Jordy Nelson catches the ball outside the numbers,” said Freeman, a member of the NFL’s player safety advisory panel. “He’s untouched. And he blows out a knee. That’s the game’s fault? No. These freak accidents happen. You have to play exhibition games. You have to practice. Things happen. This is a tough sport.

“Every time there’s an injury, people look at the game and the rules and the committees. You hear some people say, ‘They shouldn’t play preseason games. They shouldn’t practice so much.’ Okay. Go line up and play with no practices. I think that would put you at more risk. … A lot of these are non-contact injuries. Those are the things that just happen and you can’t do anything about it.”

The league and union, as part of their labor deal in 2011, set strict limits on offseason practices and curbed the amount of hitting allowed during practices year-round. Those measures largely were aimed at reducing the number of hits to the head absorbed by players.

The NFL, in an effort to reduce the number of concussions suffered by players, has toughened its enforcement of illegal hits during games and modified its return-to-play policies in recent years. NFL leaders said players would have to adjust the way they played the game and lower their aim when delivering hits. Some questions were raised as to whether such policies would lead to an increased number of knee injuries suffered by players.

[Redskins’ Galette is out for the season]

The league says its injury data shows that has not been the case. According to the league’s injury data released in January, there were 57 ACL injuries suffered by players during the 2013 preseason and regular season, down from 63 such injuries in 2012 and only slightly up from 55 in 2011.

According to the same set of injury data, there were 133 medial collateral ligament knee injuries suffered by players during the 2013 preseason and regular season, compared to 132 MCL injuries in 2012 and 143 such injuries in 2011.

Not everyone has been completely satisfied with the changes. In December 2013, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said during a conference call with Buffalo-area reporters that the practice restrictions were, in his view, leaving players more vulnerable to injuries.

“Personally, I think that’s taking the wrong approach,” Belichick said then, according to the Associated Press. “You have a gap between preparation and competition level. And I think that’s where you see a lot of injuries occurring. We get a lot of breakdowns. We get a lot of situations that players just aren’t as prepared as they were in previous years, in my experience anyway.”

There has been questioning over the years as to whether the NFL needs four preseason games for teams to prepare for the regular season. The league proposed in the last set of labor negotiations to reduce the preseason to two games per team while lengthening the regular season from 16 to 18 games. But the union objected on player-safety grounds and the NFL withdrew the proposal.

More recently, there has been conjecture that the league might shorten the preseason in conjunction with a proposed expansion of the NFL playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, which would add one postseason game per conference annually. But several owners said last year there was little sentiment to reduce the preseason. Some teams and coaches say a four-game preseason is needed to evaluate players and prepare for the season.

Yet when a player such as Nelson is lost in a game that ultimately doesn’t matter in the standings, the lament is greater.

“It’s difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said at his postgame news conference after Nelson was hurt.

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