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Is there a cost to be paid when teams overlook injuries?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a habit of downplaying the severity of player injuries

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, June 24th, the Pittsburgh Steelers released David DeCastro. It wasn’t the biggest surprise because DeCastro hadn’t been speaking to media and hadn’t been practicing. After the Steelers brought Trai Turner in for a tryout, it was pretty easy to deduce there were issues with DeCastro’s health after his injuries in the 2020 season that played a large role in his diminished play. The Steelers made that official when they released their star right guard. The surprising thing was they designated the release a Non-Football Injury release. This release status tells you two things. First, the Steelers were releasing David DeCastro while he was injured, and second, the team was stating the injury was not caused by his work playing football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The next morning, Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article that included parts of a conversation via text-message he had with DeCastro in which the 6 time Pro-Bowl lineman named the injury that caused his release, bone spurs in his ankle. He stated that he had surgery to clean it out the previous year, and needed to do it again, which he noted would be his third surgery on that ankle.

In an interview with Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider, DeCastro noted that the doctors told him the damage to the ankle stemmed from his knee injury back in his rookie season on 2012, and had been getting worse.

The difference in how DeCastro’s injury is labelled matters. If DeCastro had a football-related injury in 2020, it would need to be on the injury report, if it was significant. That’s a key word, significant. You don’t report “bumps and bruises,” but you have to report injuries that affect a player’s ability to play football. If a football related injury caused a player to retire, you would have to consider it significant, and frankly, if you watched David DeCastro play after his return from his knee injury, whatever was wrong affected his play, and that makes it worthy of being listed on an injury report.

The Steelers didn’t list DeCastro’s ankle in any injury report in 2020. Chronic bone spur issues have been listed by NFL teams in the past, Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018 was listed with an ankle injury almost every week of the season for bone spur issues that were instrumental in his release from the team. Berry was released with no injury designation, after his bone spurs were deemed not serious enough to require surgery. He hasn’t played in the NFL since.

The Steelers are in the opposite situation, after not listing DeCastro’s ankle at all in 2020, they released him injured after team doctors told DeCastro his ankle needed surgery. There’s no chance of a legal issue or NFL fines here, David DeCastro signed the clean bill of health the doctors gave him at the end of the season. But there’s more to this, and this isn’t the first time the Steelers have had issues with how they report injuries.

A culture of overlooking injuries

In 2019, Ben Roethlisberger injured his elbow in the season opener against New England. He spoke with team doctors, they evaluated him, and after he missed practice that week, Roethlisberger ended up starting week 2 before further aggravation of the elbow ended his season. The problem with that process? The Steelers listed Roethlisberger’s absence from practice as non-injury related. The Steelers were fined for not disclosing Roethlisberger’s injury after the truth came out.

In 2017 the Steelers left Le’Veon Bell’s groin injury out of the injury reports for multiple games in the playoffs. After Bell was pulled from the loss to New England, he stated that the injury had occurred two weeks prior against the Dolphins, and had gotten worse since. Mike Tomlin corroborated that story, stating that he knew about the injury, but didn’t deem it as being “significant”. The Steelers held Bell out of three practices in the two weeks between the Miami and the New England game, labelling each one as not-injury related. The Steelers escaped a fine for that one, largely because the NFL let the Seahawks get away with the same thing earlier.

Mike Tomlin viewing an injury that kept a player from practicing as not significant might sound familiar, because in camp this season, when Tomlin was asked about David DeCastro’s absence, he stated, “If I thought injury circumstances or reasons why people were not participating were significant, I would share them with you.” Multiple times the Steelers have not listed injuries on injury reports because they weren’t “significant,” and then those injuries caused those players to be unable to play football.

For his part, DeCastro has stated he will leave it up to the lawyers and union whether to file a grievance. DeCastro has made a lot of money, and doesn’t seem interested in fighting the Steelers, an organization he showed a lot of respect and affection for in the same interviews his injuries were discussed.

Not every player has the money David DeCastro has made. Isaac Redman talked to Behind the Steel Curtain in 2015 about his release from the Steelers. Redman was released by the team after a neck injury in the 2013 training camp that hurt bad enough he could not play. That neck injury would end his career, yet he was released with no injury designation. By Redman’s account he had a CAT scan scheduled for October through the team when he was released in 2013, it would take him until August of 2014 to get the final diagnosis that would result in his retirement. If the Steelers had recognized his injury, he wouldn’t have been able to be released like he was, and would have to have been placed on injured reserve where releasing him would require an injury settlement to cover his loss of ability to work due to the injury.

On the opposite side of the coin from the Isaac Redman story is the Ryan Shazier story, a case where the Steelers did just about everything they could for a player whose injury cost him his career, and plenty of players attesting to the Steelers taking care of their players better than other teams.

I’m not trying to demonize the Steelers, but I’m not going to put on my black and gold goggles, put my fingers in my ears and yell that there is nothing to see here either. The Steelers have an incredible legacy and a great reputation. They aren’t always going to live up to that reputation, I understand that, human beings make mistakes. But treating significant injuries as insignificant is a bad trend for the Steelers. So far we’ve looked mostly at the legal impact of the Steelers downplaying the severity of injury, but with David DeCastro, the legal side is irrelevant, he signed the paper saying he was healthy, he hasn’t shown interest in pursuing a grievance.

So you might be wondering why I am even talking about this.

The on the field cost of not respecting injuries

NFL players play hurt, they play through injuries, it’s a huge part of the culture of football. Not just the macho side of not wanting to look weak, but the structure of football contracts and the way the league operates, players putting their health first won’t have a job long. Jerome Bettis played when he was hurt because he was afraid the Steelers would cut him. He was less effective and it likely accelerated his decline, but he played. Ben Roethlisberger, without much fear of being cut and losing money, plays hurt a lot, and he wins games when he’s hurt. In week 2 of 2019 it didn’t work out, instead of gutting out a win he tore all five of his flexor tendons in his throwing arm over the course of a drive as he pushed himself to finish the drive. The Steelers got a field goal on that drive, but they lost their quarterback for the rest of the season.

In 2020 we saw David DeCastro play hurt, we saw his usual dominance that he had shown earlier in the season disappear and we saw him struggle to make blocks. David DeCastro went from the Steelers best offensive lineman to one of their worst, and yet he played.

In that week 2 game against the Seahawks, Mason Rudolph was better in the second half than Ben Roethlisberger was in the first half. Roethlisberger playing through that injury was worse than his backup. With Roethlisberger the Steelers gained 113 yards on 6 drives and scored 10 points, the team didn’t have a single 50 yard drive. In the second half, with Mason Rudolph the Steelers gained 158 yards and scored 16 points on 5 drives, with both a 60 and 75 yard scoring drive. A healthy Ben Roethlisberger is much better than Mason Rudolph. A banged up Roethlisberger playing through pain is better than Mason Rudolph. But the 2019 version of Roethlisberger wasn’t.

David DeCastro missed one game after his week 5 injury, and played all but a handful of snaps the rest of the season. Most of those snaps he was not good, and for most of those snaps Kevin Dotson sat on the bench while the run game disappeared and Ben Roethlisberger was forced to get rid of the ball faster and faster because of the pressure the defense was able to generate in his pocket.

How much of an impact these decisions made we can’t be sure of. We don’t know what would have happened with Ben’s elbow if he had been pulled from the week 2 game of 2019, and we don’t know what difference replacing DeCastro with Kevin Dotson would have made. We only get to see what actually happened, we don’t know what could have happened. But what we do know, is that the Steelers have a history of downplaying injuries, and we can look at the film and see players playing hurt and playing poorly despite an injury report that says they are perfectly fine. Multiple times Steelers players have played with unlisted injuries that were made worse by playing, enough to affect their play or even force them to stop playing. But those players matter, and the games the Steelers lose when players aren’t able to play good football matter.

The Steelers ran for 684 yards in the first 5 games of 2020, David DeCastro played in two of those games and looked good, Kevin Dotson played in three and looked good. When DeCastro returned from injury in week seven through the end of the season the Steelers ran for 719 yards in 11 games. Perhaps at some point the Steelers should have put two and two together and realized that playing their injured all-pro guard wasn’t helping the team, and giving him time to rest and recover, even if it meant digging deeper into the depth chart, might have been a better choice.