Athletes frustrate us for many reasons. Inconsistent performance. Off-field transgressions. Failure to reach their potential. But the inability of some players to stay healthy for a full season may be the most maddening of all.
Coaches sometimes openly complain that a player is taking longer to return than expected. Injured players often confidently predict that they'll beat even the most optimistic return to play estimates. Though there's often little clarity on the severity of a player's injury or when he'll be back on the field, one thing is certain. In the tough guy culture of the NFL, no one wants to be labeled "injury-prone."
The Injury prone player: perception vs reality
Are certain players more prone to injury than others? Can you measure how injury-prone a player may be? Is it predictable? How many injuries does a player have to suffer before earning the injury-prone label?
It's plainly obvious that some players get injured more often than others. But it isn't easy to reliably identify the most fragile players. An NFL team's medical staff may red flag a draft prospect or fail a player on physical exam, but most decisions aren't as black and white. While it may be clearly evident that a player HAS BEEN prone to injury, it doesn't necessarily follow that the same player, now healthy, WILL BE prone to injury in the future.
Yet, the term injury-prone is more often used prospectively rather than retrospectively -- and at times, I believe, unfairly.
Identifying the highest injury risks
There are many objective reasons why a player who has had a history of injuries may be prone to future injury. I think it's reasonable to consider players in the following categories as more likely to suffer a future injury:
- A player with a smaller frame, greater than average laxity in his joints, or less than average tendon flexibility
- A player with poorer strength, poorer conditioning, or less endurance than his competition
- A player with below-average bone density or differences in the microscopic makeup of his connective tissue
- A player with poor biomechanics or technique, especially when performing repetitive motions
- A player with poorer reaction time or slower neuromuscular processing speed
- A player more willing to take chances or put himself in a position to be injured
- A player who has had repeated injuries to the same area (e.g. scar tissue, cartilage loss, overuse syndromes)
- A player more willing to play through pain that limits his conditioning, flexibility, reaction time, etc.
There are undoubtedly many others. But, in many cases, putting a number on the risk of future injury is difficult, if not impossible. In some cases, a team may be aware of an issue (e.g. joint laxity, scar tissue, conditioning concerns) that the media and fans are not.
Assessing the importance of missed offseason workouts
Every offseason, blogs and Twitter are abuzz with news about players missing offseason training workouts and minicamp with injuries. Teams are even less forthcoming than usual about the severity of these injuries and purposefully vague about when they expect their players to return.
There are times when something just doesn't add up -- e.g. Chris Wells calling his 2012 knee surgery a minor scope four months after the procedure or Jahvid Best saying in July that it'd be just a matter of days before he'd be cleared to return when there had been no signs of progress in months -- and those missed workouts are an ominous sign for the future. More often, however, a team exercising caution with an injured player they expect to be a major part of their offense or defense is doing exactly that.
Deciding which players to downgrade
So, if it's difficult to know which players are truly prone to injury and impossible to know what the truth is about an offseason injury situation, when should you downgrade a player's future expectation due to injury concern?
First, ask yourself if the story being told is believable. Is it plausible that a team might hold its stud offensive talent out of meaningless OTA practices when their depth chart is shallow and the offensive coordinator and playbook hasn't changed? Absolutely. Should you worry if a coach is optimistic about a player returning soon but is continually evasive about his third knee surgery in two years when asked why he isn't practicing? Absolutely.
Many situations are going to be more murky, however. But there are some subtle clues you can use to your advantage. A player who cannot make it through consecutive practices two to three weeks into training camp should raise a red flag. A player who was once practicing regularly and now is not should raise a red flag. A player whose injury or surgery does not match the timetable the team gives the media should raise a red flag. Players who reaggravate an injury or have begun to show signs of repeated injuries to the same body part after fully healing also deserve a red flag.
There will be times when a player will fit into none of those categories or are entering camp with promises of being fully healthy for the first time in months or years, e.g. Ryan Mathews, Hakeem Nicks, Michael Vick or Mark Ingram. And there will always be players whose situation won't be clear until well into camp, e.g. Adrian Peterson in 2012, Rob Gronkowski and Robert Griffin III in 2013. Approach these players based on your own philosophies of risk tolerance and how much you believe a player's past injury report informs the future.
I'll have updated thoughts on the most critical cases throughout the offseason in the Footballguys Interactive Magazine and our injury-centric Second Opinion blog at Footballguys.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @JeneBramel for the latest injury updates and commentary.
More from Jene Bramel:
Reading the Defense: Defensive Back Tiers [Early July Update] - July 5
Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [Early July Update] - July 5
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [Early July Update] - July 5
Combined Rookie Draft Board 2.0 - July 5
Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [Post NFL Draft Update] - June 18
OTA Injury Updates: Who Should (and Shouldn't) Worry You? - June 18
Navigating the Injury Report - June 15
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [Post NFL Draft Update] - May 27
Combined Rookie Draft Board 1.0 - May 5
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Draft Preview - April 16