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Will the NFL see another rash of injuries in training camp like it did in 2011?

The league may be staring down the barrel of another injury crisis.

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Should Roger Goodell and the rest of the NFL be worried about the possibility of a slew of injuries occurring during training camp?
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Injuries happen in the NFL. There’s no way to fully prevent them from happening.

But you can take the appropriate measures to help curb injuries. That’s what the NFL offseason is all about. Minicamps, OTAs, workouts, rehab, etc. — all of it is there to help keep NFL players in game shape and keep them ready for the upcoming season.

So if you take away the offseason, then you take away the opportunity for players to stay in contact with coaches, trainers, and doctors, which could have negative effects.

This year, there was no offseason. The Coronavirus literally reduced everything to virtual meetings. Players have had to rely upon their own means to stay in shape and conduct their own workouts, but is it the same thing as going through a regular offseason program?

2011 was the last time that the players missed out on preseason activities prior to training camp. The NFL suffered its longest work stoppage since 1987 due to the lockout and as a result, there were no offseason programs for players to participate in. The NFL and NFLPA agreed on the new CBA two days before the start of training camp and players were instantly thrust into action.

It’s pretty easy to remember what happened next. Players got hurt. A lot of them. And they weren’t just minor injuries. Many were of the type of that take months of rehab to fully recover from and some were the type that are career-threatening.

New York Giants v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No NFL player is safe from injury.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Take Achilles ruptures, for example. There are multiple studies on the average amount of Achilles ruptures each year in the NFL. While they range from four to eight ruptures in any given year, Dr. Elliot Hershman —the Chairman of the NFL’s Injury & Safety Panel at the time of the study— says that there is an average of eight Achilles ruptures per year in the NFL.

2011 blew that number away. According to the Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy, 10 Achilles ruptures occurred in the first 12 days of training camp and two more occurred in the subsequent 17 days. So, a total of 12 ruptures occurred during the first 29 days of camp and the preseason. Based off a journal entry from Selene G. Parkeh and colleagues, 35% of these injuries occurred in the preseason and 65% occurred during the regular season from 1997-2002, so there was supposed to be between just one to three Achilles ruptures at that point in the 2011 preseason.

So, the question must be asked: Is the NFL staring down the barrel of another injury spike in 2020?

As alarming as this sounds, it was nine years ago, so I decided to seek an updated perspective. I reached out to Dr. Paul Crook, an orthopaedic surgeon in Nashville, TN who specializes in sports medicine and was the team doctor for the Texas A&M Aggies and Tennessee Titans, among others.

Dr. Crook helped shed some light on what the next few weeks may be like for the NFL.

“This is very complicated to predict as there are so many variables that go into why a player gets injured,” Crook said. “Certainly, players who are not keeping in shape on their own during this offseason are at a huge risk of getting injured early in the season. Fast-twitch muscle fiber is very susceptible to injury if not properly conditioned. Hydration and stretching are huge components as well.

“I remember when Albert Haynesworth signed a $100-million contract in 2010 with Washington. He showed up to camp and was so out of shape that he was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis (essentially the breakdown of muscle fibers that are then released into the bloodstream). He could barely run. These days, if you watch some of these workouts that guys like Derrick Henry are posting on social media, it’s unbelievable. Most of the guys now are ready to go [by] Day One.”

OK, great. The healthy players are covered, but what about the guys who are rehabbing from injury or the ones who were recently cleared to play? Would the lack of access to team doctors, trainers, and other resources affect any of the rehab process or delay any comeback from injury?

NFL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Pittsburgh Steelers
Bryant Mitchell tore his Achilles against the Steelers in the 2019 preseason.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Dr. Crook broke it down rather easily.

“Honestly, COVID-19 really shouldn’t affect a player’s rehab,” he said. “While facemasks, gloves, and social distancing are now the norm, physical therapists and athletic trainers are still able to do pretty much everything the job entails to get the players back on the field in a timely manner.”

And when it comes to the guys who are cleared to play but can’t immediately get back to action due to the restricted access, it was another positive message.

“If anything, it may help the player. There is definitely a gray area of when a player is truly ‘cleared’ for play. For example, in ACL reconstruction, most guys are cleared to play 9-12 months after surgery, but studies show that outcome scores continue to improve even 2 years after surgery.”

Will the NFL see another rash of injuries in the first days of the 2020 season like it did in 2011? Who knows. This is not the right time to try and make any kind of real-life predictions. The NFL did increase practice squad sizes by four spots, so that will certainly help if it does happen again.

Like with most things these days, we will just have to wait with fingers crossed in hopes of the best outcome.