For the rest of the week, the Washington Redskins are in evaluation mode, the somber January rite of every playoff-barren NFL squad. It's time to find a reason for everything, including the unreasonable. Near the top of the list will be one headache-inducing dilemma: how to avoid bad injury luck.
The season ended, mercifully, with 23 players on injured reserve. Eleven of them were starters. If Washington had made the postseason, it probably would have needed to attend a retired players association meeting just to sign a healthy running back. LeShun Daniels broke his hand fielding a kickoff in practice. Byron Marshall's hamstring exploded as he went after a kickoff in Los Angeles. It was that kind of season. Not even bubble wrap could have protected the players.
Who's to blame for the attrition? The organization won't come up with a concrete answer. People shouldn't get fired for the way a team trains or diagnoses injuries or helps the players recover. It actually would be easier if the franchise could point to shoddy work in one area, but it can't. It will conclude by reiterating the obvious: Football is a bone-breaking, tendon-tearing sport of attrition. And every five or seven years, most teams will endure a Murphy's Law season like the one Washington just suffered.
Still, the franchise can't shrug and make a palms-up expression. It must do something. Twenty-three players on IR? That's half of an active game-day roster. Injuries are inevitable. Fluke things happen. But it never, ahem, hurts to rethink and strengthen preventive measures.
"I don't think there's any doubt that's something we have to take a close look at, whether it's recovery after games, whether it's how to prevent injuries [with] how we practice, what have you," Coach Jay Gruden said. "The problem is there are so many different types of injuries. It's not like they're all soft-tissue. They're [not] all knees or shoulders. We have such a wide variety of injuries. How many of them are actually preventable? That's what we have to take a look at. A big thing is how we help our players recover after games, before games. All that stuff is going to have to be taken a closer look at. We'll do a lot of studying in that regard. I'll look forward to seeing what we can do to help prevent the injuries in the future."
The franchise has a dubious recent history with injuries — most of it pre-Gruden — particularly when it comes to bringing back players too soon or letting them play through ailments for too long.
In general, it hasn't been a major problem recently, but there are questions to ask about why standout left tackle Trent Williams played so long with a kneecap problem that required surgery and may cost him some time next season. In addition, former Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Reed's toe/hamstring saga was bizarre and makes you wonder whether the team could have benefited long term by forcing him to sit early in the season.
Safety D.J. Swearinger, a veteran who just completed his first season in Washington, accused his teammates of being too laissez-faire about injury prevention.
"Personally, I've been on previous teams where, after practice, you have 30 guys in the cold tub, or you've got 20 guys in the cold tub," Swearinger said. "I didn't feel that vibe from this team. Whether they do it here or elsewhere, I didn't think guys took care of themselves."
It's a damning accusation from a player who contributed to organizations that have been more successful recently, including Arizona and Houston. But Swearinger also tends to blame everything on preparation and prevention. That's just how he thinks. While Gruden would like to see more young players follow the diligent examples of Swearinger, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Kerrigan and Vernon Davis in taking care of their bodies, he didn't agree with the suggestion that the team is burdened by poor habits in that area.
"I don't know if he knows what every player does at home with their free time as far as taking care of their bodies," Gruden said of Swearinger's claim. "There are things that we can add in the training room for the players for recovery sake, for preventive sake, whatever, that we'll have to look at. But I think the majority of our guys do take good care of their bodies. There might be an instance here or there when somebody could do a better job. That's something we have to help the guys out on with: knowledge and giving them materials to study and stuff in the training room to better prepare themselves and get better."
There are two more things to consider. First, it's time for the franchise to think harder about how much it plans on the availability of oft-injured players such as Reed. It's a tricky situation because he's so good, and he's playing on a $46.75 million contract that makes him the third-highest-paid tight end in football. The 2017 season was the most difficult of Reed's career. He played in a career-low six games. Through five NFL seasons, the 27-year-old has been available for 52 of 80 games. That makes him a 10- or 11-game player. The team can hope he'll be able to play more, but if it's planning on Reed becoming a 16-game player who carries the passing game, it's destined for disappointment. Sadly, it has to find a way to work around Reed's uncertainty.
"It's hard, and it's unfortunate for him because he does have that history of not being able to finish a year," Gruden said. "He is such a special, gifted athlete. When he is available, he is a difference-maker. I mean, it's just a fact."
Here's another issue: In recent years, as part of former general manager Scot McCloughan's draft strategy to capitalize on market inefficiencies, the organization has taken more mid- to late-round risks on players with injury histories. It has taken a couple of those chances to sign moderately priced free agents as well. It looks great when Kendall Fuller, a third-round pick in 2016, recovers from anterior cruciate ligament surgery and starts playing like a borderline first-round pick by his second season. But it looks foolish in many other cases, and Washington has dealt with the other side often.
It's difficult to determine a solution when trying to uncover draft and free agency steals. And durability is often an issue for young players as they develop physically. But if Washington wants to get ahead, it must either gamble less or gamble better.
"We're not blaming the medical staff, the training staff, coaching staff, the players," Gruden said. "Some of them are freak injuries. What we can do is do a better job maybe of the postgame recovery or give them some more options as to — maybe yoga, Pilates. I don't know what it is. Could be something. We'll look into everything we can."
Yogi Gruden? Now that would be fun.
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