State of the Steelers Offensive Line - Misfortune, Not Coach Kugler, To Blame For Rash Of Injuries

Watching Coach Kugler at Training Camp, I was impressed with his teaching style.  He not only told the guys what to do and coached them as they did it, as in this photo, but he helped them to understand what doing it correctly feels like.  That's a difficult thing to do, and I think that the improved play on the O line despite the huge rash of injuries this season validates his approach.

But what about those injuries?  It has been pointed out by some members of BTSC that not only has our O line seen an almost unprecedented number of injuries, but the O line in Buffalo last season had the same problem.  There has been speculation that his style of coaching and the things he suggests might make the players more susceptible to injury.  Is there any validity to that statement?  Well, I can't say for sure, but I have my theories, as always.

My first thought was that O linemen might be more likely to be injured than players at other positions.  When I went looking for information about injury rates by position, it proved to be rather difficult to get statistics.  Teams are reluctant to release any injury information that they don't have to, for strategic reasons.  But the information I did find will probably generate its own post later this season or during the offseason.  The short version is that O linemen aren't more likely to be injured than players in most other positions - in fact, D linemen are more likely to be injured than O linemen.  But the fact is that there is a high injury rate for all positions.  (I believe it is DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFLPA, who famously said that the injury rate in the NFL is 100%.) 

Injuries happen constantly.  As one doctor pointed out, when a player is listed as "probable" he is still seriously injured.  Listing a player as probable means that his injury  can probably be played through with enough strapping tape and painkillers.  I'm guessing that in a typical year injuries are generally spread out fairly evenly among the various types of players and therefore aren't as noticeable.

I turned up the following situations while looking for information:

Washington:  In November of 2008 the Redskins, who were already missing 2 injured starters, lost 3 offensive linemen in a single game. 

Miami: On August 10th of this season they had an injured center, a re-injured left guard, and a right guard with an injured knee.  On the 21st they signed a FA guard and he was injured and cut on the 27th.  On Nov. 18th the backup center injured his knee and another FA guard was injured.

Dallas: As of August 18th of this season the left tackle, right tackle and right guard were all injured and out for several weeks.

Seattle:  The Seahawks began their 09 season with 3 out of 5 of their starters out for the season.  The three players that replaced them only had 20 NFL starts between them.  They ended the season with all 5 starters injured.

St. Louis: The Rams began the 2007 season with the left tackle, right guard, left guard, and backup tackle out for the season.

New York Giants: This November, the backup center is out for the season -  the starting center injured his foot earlier in the season.  The left tackle is out for several weeks, and they are activating a PUP player to fill the center slot.

Denver: 3 out of 5 members of O line that started the season this year had no previous NFL game experience - injuries to their veteran starters necessitated replacing them with untested players.

We have to remember that statistics are a tricky thing.  Take the usual illustration - flipping a coin.  Using a 'fair' coin, the statistical probability of it turning up heads is 50%.  The probability is 50% on every flip of the coin.  The dial is reset each time.  Statistically, over a large number of trials it is going to balance out.  But the fact that my coin has turned up heads 10 times in a row doesn't make it less likely that flip #11 is going to turn up heads - the probability for that particular coin flip is still 50/50.  This is very counter-intuitive.  Try it, though.  If you flip a coin 100 times and keep track of the results of each coin flip, you'll likely find that there are clusters of heads and tails during the course of it. 

Of course, if you find out that you get 90 flips of heads, there is probably something wrong with your coin.  But if the overall tally is right around 50/50, that's statistics in action.  The larger the number of trials, the closer the tally should come to 50/50. When you have 5 O linemen + what, maybe 3 backups, 16 games, and an average of 30-40 offensive plays per team for one game, you can see that you have a relatively low number of trials, even over a season, which is going to lead to some skewed results.

But back to my rather limited research.  Does it prove anything?  It proves something we already knew, which is that if you play football you have to expect to get hurt sooner or later. But in terms of injury clusters on the O line I'm guessing that another factor comes into play.  When you lose your starter in a position, the person you replace them with is going to be a lesser player, either inherently or in terms of experience.  I wonder if this doesn't have a domino effect, in which the other members of the line are forced to compensate, and thus have to give a bit more on each play. Furthermore, the substitute player is less accustomed to playing with the rest of the line and probably a bit less conversant with the playbook, and this increases the chance that they will make mistakes that expose some of the other linemen. These factors might well lead to increased injuries, and for every starter that goes down, the likelihood of injury would mushroom.

I guess my planned profile of Coach Kugler is going to have to wait for a later date.  But for now, I hope that the above information lays to rest the notion that his coaching is endangering the O line.  As far as I can tell, it's just the luck of the draw.

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