Source: NFL injury reports
Note: Games: games missed by starters; Starters: number of starters who missed games; IR: number of starters on injured reserve.
INJURED FALCONS STARTERS
FB Bradie Ewing/5/Injured reserve
OL Mike Johnson/7/Injured reserve
WR Julio Jones/2/Injured reserve
LB Kroy Biermann/5/Injured reserve
LB Sean Weatherspoon/5/Out at least two more games
RB Jason Snelling/1/Missed last game
RB Steven Jackson/4/Returned in Week 8
WR Roddy White/2/Missed past two games
LB Akeem Dent/1/Played past two games
CB Asante Samuel/2/Played past three games
OL Sam Baker/4/Missed past three games
LB Stephen Nicholas/Missed last game
When Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez retires after this season his career accomplishments will lead to a the Hall of Fame induction as soon as he’s eligible, but there’s one number that may be more impressive than all his catches, yards and touchdowns.
That’s how many games Gonzalez has missed in 17-plus seasons in the NFL. Gonzalez has avoided serious injury despite playing a position that requires tangling with defenders in the trenches, making cuts in the open field and taking hits from linebackers and defensive backs.
What’s his secret?
“Honestly, without a doubt, it’s luck,” Gonzalez said.
If that’s the case, then many of Gonzalez’s teammates and several players across the league are awfully unfortunate.
After eight weeks of the season, 208 players were on injured reserve Tuesday. USA Today reported that the rate of players placed on IR, including those eligible to return, is on pace to exceed the all-time high of 343 in 2010.
Last season, the first to feature the short-term IR designation, 337 players ended the season on IR.
Even as the Falcons have been ravaged by injuries, coach Mike Smith has done his best to avoid talking about them so they don’t become the source of excuses.
“We are not even going to address the injuries,” he said. “The next man has got to step up.”
That has been the refrain of coaches across the league as injuries pile up and observers offer theories to explain them.
Practices feature less contact now because of collective bargaining rules, so maybe players’ bodies aren’t conditioned to absorb hits on game day. Perhaps the effort to eliminate targeting of the head has led to more hits to lower extremities.
Or it could be that there is no real increase in injuries, but rather more attention is paid to them because some high-profile players have gone down.
The truth is it would be a surprise if there are fewer injuries this season than in 2012. The frequency and severity of NFL injuries have been on the rise for years, according to every independent study of the topic and the league’s own data.
Gonzalez has noticed a change over the years, but it has nothing to do with unluckier players or about hits or practices.
“Bigger, faster, stronger,” Gonzalez said. “That’s what happened. Bigger, faster, stronger guys.”
All signs point to continued increases in injury rates, and the impact isn’t limited to the marginal players who tend to populate the IR lists. More striking is the number of starters who have suffered season-ending injuries.
There are 60 starting players on the season-ending IR, according to a review of injury data. All but five teams have at least one starter ruled out for the season and eight teams have at least three, including the Falcons with four.
Through eight weeks the league’s starters have lost 639 games to injury (including players hurt in the preseason who were projected to start). That’s an average of about 20 games lost to injury by starters per team.
Falcons starters have missed 39 games because of injury, second-most in the league, with star wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White among the casualties. The defense’s depth has taken a big hit, especially at linebacker.
“We knew back in training camp it was going to take everybody on the roster,” Falcons safety William Moore said. “We didn’t think it would come down to a lot of rookies in stepping in.”
At least Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has stayed healthy. His position is the most protected in the game, but quarterbacks still go down with injuries. Two NFL teams already are on their third quarterback.
In Buffalo, Kevin Kolb went on injured reserve with a concussion. His replacement, rookie E.J. Manuel, lasted five starts before he was sent to the injured list with a knee sprain that has kept him out the past month.
Similarly, when Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden was sidelined by a thumb injury, Brian Hoyer took over. Then Hoyer was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, and Weeden took over again.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was hurt in preseason and ended up on IR before he played a game. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford recently was sent to the IR, and now Chicago’s Jay Cutler is out for an indefinite period, too.
It’s not just the quarterbacks who are hurting.
Denver’s offensive line has been hit hard. Tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season, and center J.D. Walton for at least eight weeks. Dan Koppen, signed to replace Walton, also ended up on injured reserve.
All signs point to the trend of more injuries continuing.
In 2011, the league released data that showed the number of injuries increased in every year since 2000, with only two exceptions.
A study last summer by Edgeworth Economics, commissioned by the NFL players’ association, showed an increase in major injuries, which it defined as ailments that kept players out for eight days or more. According to Edgeworth, there were 1,496 such injuries in 2012, 1,380 in 2011, 1,272 in 2010 and 1,095 in 2009. That’s an increase of 36.6 percent over four seasons.
If it’s like Gonzalez said and the increase in injuries is because of bigger, faster and stronger players, then it’s not clear what can be done to stop the trend.
Dr. Marc Legere, a soft-tissue injury specialist who works with athletes in the major pro sports, agrees that luck plays a role — up to a point.
“Someone falling on you, there is no way to prevent that,” Legere said. “But most sports injuries come from overuse. Our bodies are still built for cross training, one day do one sport, next day another. Our bodies can adapt to change, and pro athletes are best at adapting to change, but when they do the same thing over and over again the body can’t help but overuse the tissue. The muscle can’t handle its job.”
Gonzalez’s body has held up despite so many years playing a physical sport at the highest level and at a position where he takes a lot of abuse. He’s retiring after this season and said he knocks on wood that he can do so without suffering a major injury.
Gonzalez has kept himself in great shape through the years and said he tries as much as he can to avoid taking unnecessary risks.
“You try to keep yourself out of situations of getting hurt,” Gonzalez said. “But it can be anything. I can run five yards on an out (pattern), and then a guy can dive and tackle me and I’m done. I’ve been very, very fortunate.”