Severe. Devastating. Profound. Choose whatever adjective you like to describe the the Steelers' injury report.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has articulated more than once that injuries are part of the the game. Tomlin has even said that they are analogous to blocking and tackling. Recently,however, Steeler fans have begun to wonder out loud if there is something else at work.
What could be the cause for all of these injuries? Not only are players getting hurt, but we are losing them for the year. To try to shed some light on our current situation, let's explore some different causes.
1. Bigger, faster, stronger. Even a casual observer of professional football over the past 15-20 years has noticed the increase in player size. Offensive and defensive lineman are huge. 230 pound running backs come out of college every year running 4.4-4.5 forty yard dashes. Force is equal to mass times acceleration; therefore, it makes sense that collisions during the game cause more injuries.
While all of this is true, does it not also make sense that the advances in excercise science during the past 20 years have also contributed to injury prevention? Look at what is currently available in every NFL training room. Moreover, shouldn't the advances in nutrition and excercise that have led to 275 pound defensive ends running 4.5 40's also lead to them recovering from injuries faster?
Finally, look at he advances in actual medicine. If an athlete tore their ACL in the 90's, that athlete was looking at a few days in the hospital with over a year of rehab. Currently, a torn ACL is outpatient surgery and requires months of rehab.
2. Players are soft. One of the things I look forward to every year is the annual complaint from Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley at the beginning of each training camp. Each camp, Tunch and Wolf wax eloquently about their 2 a days under the Emperor and how each practice was full pads. After that soliloquy, they usually then get into how Noll would have full-go practices on Fridays. The recollection ends with an interview/interrogation of a current Steeler, who is made very well aware of the fact that they currently have it very easy.
Many former players have taken the points expressed by Tunch and Wolf and used them to explain the current injury malaise that many teams face. The argument by these former players revolves around the idea that an athlete's body needs conditioned to the hitting that occurs in the NFL. Without this, the athletes never have the chance to get their bodies acclimated to the rigors of the NFL.
This might actually be a case of the law of unintended consequences. Could it be that rules put in place by the players' union in order to prevent injuries have actually had the opposite effect?
3. The need for speed. The modern 4-3 defense was invented by Jimmy Johnson while at the University of Miami. The defense was created to stop the option offenses of Oklahoma, Nebraska and Notre Dame (little nugget: the Dwyer and Bettis comparisons are apt in the fact that they both played option FB's in college) among others. T
he main feature of the 4-3 was the gap exchange between the DL and the linebackers. If an offensive tackle blocked down, the defensive tackle had to come screaming down the line, replacing the feet of the offensive lineman. The linebacker then had to scrape over the top. The lateral movement required by the defensive put a much higher premium on agility and quickness. What Jonhnson's defensive line coach, Butch Davis, also realized was that athletic defensive lineman could also get off blocks quicker. These revelations changed defensive football.
Offensives soon caught up, and ironically, the leader of this change was Johnson's replacement: Dennis Erickson. Erickson was one of the first proponents of the single back offense. The idea behind the offense was to force the defense to cover the entire width and length of the field by spreading it out.
What these changes have led to are the massive full contact collisions that Goodell is trying to legislate out of the NFL. More prevalent, however, are the collisions that cannot be legislated. James Harrison got fined for hitting Massaquoi in the middle of the field, but he also knocked Cribbs out of that same game. The Massaquoi hit is a result of the changes in NFL offense (which is why Hines Ward said afterwards is was McCoys fault because he should have known not to thrown the ball late over the middle of the field), whereas the hit on Cribbs was a result of a freak athlete pursuing the football.
The days of three yards and a cloud of dust are long gone. While Goodell is trying to legislate certain things out of the league, there is nothing he can do about defensive coordinators teaching pursuit to stop the modern day spread offenses. As long as defenses gang-tackle, offensive and defensive (friendly fire) players are going to get hurt.
4. Bad conditioning. This is the one that many fans are currently questioning. What the heck our are trainers doing, or not doing, that is leading to this current rash of injuries? Football training is a curious topic and one that many have a strong opinion about.
First, let's dispense with the obvious: if a player is not willing to train their body there is nothing the trainers can do for them. Jim Wexell just wrote an article about how Keenan Lewis has finally started to heed the advice of Ike Taylor and started lifting on Mondays.
It took this long for a professional athlete to realize that he should probably take care of his body. This cannot be blamed on the trainers or the coaches. If one of the trainers could force Lewis to do something even though Lewis does not receive some immediate tangible benefit from it, then they shouldn't be a trainer. They should be in the Middle East negotiating a peace settlement. Coaches can make an athlete go to therapy, but they can't make them work hard while there. Remember, this is the essence of sports. If everyone was the gold standard, it would not be the gold standard would it?
The best trainers can do is design an excellent conditioning program. Do our trainers do that? No, but not for the reason you think. No one designs a program anymore. Everything is individualized. A trainer does an individual assessment of each athlete, sees where they have weak points, and then designs a program to address those points.
A good example of this to consider is Buddy Morris. Buddy was the legendary strength coach of the Pitt Panthers during Pitt's heyday of the 70s and 80s. When Butch Davis got the Cleveland job, he hired Morris. At that time, Morris had built his reputation on injury prevention. He had a lot of research and new exercise to combat injuries. If you walked into one of Buddy's workouts, you would see some athletes doing things like terminal knee extensions, rotator cuff work, lots and lots of core work (Buddy really brought the core stuff to the forefront), medicine ball exercises, tissue therapy, and a myriad of other things.
Guess what? None of it worked. The Browns were devastated by injuries and Davis was fired.
I'm not saying that Davis was fired because of the injuries, but the interim coach that replaced him did. He basically threw Morris under the bus. In what might be the only time in football history this happened, the strength coach called a press conference. Buddy actually made a cut-up of every injury suffered that year. His point was this: football is a high collision sport. There is no way to avoid injury. The best you can hope for is to minimize them and treat them as fast as possible.
To which, one could plausibly retort "In that case, what the heck is the point of having a strength coach and/or athletic trainers?" After a season in which the Steelers special teams were not special, a reporter asked Tomlin how he could square that fact with the amount of practice time the Steelers spent on special teams. His answer was, "Imagine how bad we would've been if we didn't practice special teams all that time."
Conclusion. It's all Marcus Gilbert's fault. Yep, that correct. I just wrote 1400 words and that is the best I got. You betcha. Here is the thing. Bad technique leads to getting beat. Getting beat leads to someone getting tackled. When Gilbert gets beat, someone is usually getting tackled on the back of someone's legs. Remember that kid in high school that the coach refused to put in unless you were losing by 50? The coach wasn't being an idiot, he knew that the kid would probably get three others hurt. At least. My conspiracy theory is that he's not really that hurt. The Steelers just refuse to put him on the field until camp next year.
As a matter of fact, I'm shocked Legursky was not on the injury report this week.