Sports Column: Padding the injury report

By Mike Szwaja

You have to feel for Lovie Smith, who is three games into his first season as an NFL head coach with the Chicago Bears. Injuries have made his job a whole lot tougher than it already is.

Injuries to Jerry Azumah, Mike Brown, Rex Grossman, Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher have turned the Monsters of the Midway into the Mangled of the Midway.

Why the Bears? Why is their injury report laden with potential all-pros? All teams have injuries – the Bears have just been unlucky.

If you’ve never looked at an NFL injury report, it’s scary. Name after name followed by an assortment of different ailments. And it never seems to end.

As of Thursday afternoon, 400 players found their names on the report. Divide that number by the number of teams, 32, and you get an average of 12.5 players per team with some type of injury. Many of those players will play on Sunday; the report includes players listed as “probable,” but the fact remains that even those players won’t be 100 percent healthy on Sunday.

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Injuries are the NFL’s biggest concern right now, and as someone who makes following the NFL part of his daily life, it’s really starting to turn me off of the game. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate post patterns, reverses, delayed blitzes and cover-two defenses as much as the next guy, but watching the NFL turn into a slaughterhouse hasn’t been fun.

Maybe it’s different for those of you who have never been seriously injured. I had ACL reconstruction surgery five years ago, and let me tell you, it’s no fun. So when I see guys breaking bones, snapping tendons and tearing ligaments at will, I see an escalating problem.

I’m not sure what’s going on in the NFL, but there’s an explanation out there that I’m willing to buy.

In 2000, Professor William Garraway, based at the University of Edinburgh, released a case study focusing on injuries among professional rugby players in Scotland. Garraway assessed injuries in approximately 800 rugby players during the 1993-1994 season and again during the 1997-1998 season. Garraway reported the proportion of players injured almost doubled from 27 percent in ’93-94 to 47 percent in ’97-98.

Garraway explained that during the ’93-94 season, players wore little padding, but by ’97-98 players were wearing shin, shoulder, elbow and head padding. He concluded the increase in injuries was a direct result of the extra padding.

“The factor that is most likely to have contributed to the increased burden on injuries, and requires the most urgent attention, is the almost universal adoption of protective equipment between the 1993-94 and 1997-98 seasons,” Garraway said. “Players at the professional level have turned to the use of this equipment in the expectation that it will minimize the consequences of bodily impact and may even give them a psychological edge when using their increased physical presence to tackle.”

Picture an NFL football player in full uniform. He’s draped in padding. You know how some players have different looking helmets now? Those are new helmets said to decrease head injuries. (If you haven’t noticed them, try and get a good look at Bears receiver Bernard Berrian’s on Sunday.)

Is it so unreasonable to think these guys pulverize each other because they are comfortably hiding behind all that padding? Imagine a safety free of pads decking a sitting-duck receiver, also free of pads, over the middle. Now do the same, but picture a fully padded John Lynch blindsiding a fully padded Jerry Porter. He’s going to hit him harder with the pads than without. All that padding gives NFL players freedom to let loose.

That said, we can’t just strip NFL players of their pads, but as technology gets better and players start feeling more secure under all that armor, it’s reasonable to think the hitting will only get harder, which means more injures, which ultimately means shorter careers, which will then jeopardize star power, which could be a significant blow to the NFL.

Maybe the pad issue is a non-issue, you decide for yourself. But Garraway’s numbers are hard to ignore, and I think it could become a real problem for the NFL in the near future.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected].