Collier: NFL's summer body count is becoming painful
August 25, 2013 4:00 AM
Eric Gay/Associated Press
Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller is only one of too many players who have seen their 2013 seasons cut short already.
By Gene Collier Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the spoken and written language, the most repeated phrase of this NFL preseason isn't terribly evocative of autumnal heroics to come.
How could it be?
It's "left on a cart."
Baltimore's Dennis Pitta left on a cart, soon after Philadelphia's Jeremy Macklin left on a cart, and then Atlanta's Roddy White left on a cart, Denver's Champ Bailey left on a cart, Miami's Dustin Keller left on a cart and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles left on a cart.
Part of it is that NFL teams will deploy that flatbed golf cart vehicle at the least provocation, drawing the line at maybe sending it toward the showers if someone gets shampoo in their eye, but the far larger part is that this seems to be the worst preseason for regularly scheduled carnage in memory.
Because that's a ridiculously unscientific observation, and because Art Rooney II's football memory is of similar dimensions to mine, I asked the president of the Steelers the other day if it was his sense that the physical price being paid by NFL teams for six weeks worth of ramp-up feels exorbitant.
"I don't think I'd be ready to make an observation that this year is worse than other year," Rooney said. "It's hard to distinguish between whether it's more people reporting about injuries or if there are more injuries. It seems like every year there is a particular injury that sort of spikes. Last year there was a rash of Achilles injuries.
"It sounds like there are more ACL injures this year."
Ripped anterior cruciate ligaments have felled Bryan Bulaga, Aaron Rodgers' blind side tackle in Green Bay, Dan Koppen, Peyton Manning's center in Denver, defensive back Chris Culliver with San Francisco and the aforementioned Maclin. Two of the sports' most prominent story lines, the readiness of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and Tampa corner Darrelle Revis, were born of the same injury.
The biggest, fattest hole in the 2013 Steelers roster is the one created when tight end Heath Miller tore his ACL and other things last December. It was Rooney, you might remember, who started this offseason by promising a thorough review of his team's medical and training practices, with the obvious intent being the prevention of a destructive overload of injuries, the most painful in the Steelers' case currently the foot injury to rookie Le'Veon Bell, whom they were desperate to start at running back.
There was no overhaul.
"I don't think we're doing anything dramatically different," Rooney said. "It was really just a mater of sitting down with our trainers, doctors and conditioning folks and just taking a look at everything we do.
"The biggest challenge in the new CBA [the union contract signed in 2011] is that we only get a few weeks , only really nine weeks to have an offseason program, so there's a need to try and stay in touch with our guys when they're out of the building. We used to have at least 12 weeks, and there weren't as many rules about what they could do when they were here. Now there a lot more restrictions on what kind of contact you can have with them and what kind of supervision they can have when they're here."
Rooney doesn't believe the league and the union are at cross purposes with those restrictions -- both parties agreed to them -- but neither is he convinced that some of the particulars within the new arrangement aren't potentially related to the injury rates.
"I would say it's too early to tell, but I am concerned about it," he said. "These things really do take years before you can spot real trends, so it's too early to draw any significant conclusion. I'm just concerned, looking at our own situation; we've seen an increase in injuries on our team over the last couple of years since the new CBA went into effect."
The agreement runs through 2020, when you'd imagine nothing less than the nature of the game for the 21st century will have come into focus due to the convergence of all safety-related initiatives, not the least of which is the growing mountain of concussion lawsuits awaiting resolution.
Long past the tipping point on concussions, the league has been forced into a transitional period that doesn't always appear to make sense, but must deliver a safer product, post-transition. Yet there remains a significant, some would say perverse, segment of the audience that wants a game without diluted violence.
"There is a point where we could go too far on rules changes and people won't like it," Rooney said. "I'm not convinced that we're at that point. I'm in the camp that I think we've made appropriate changes and we still have a great game. We're obviously trying to strike a balance. I don't think we've made that many changes that you're going to say, 'Ok, it's not good football.' People are still excited about it."
Excited as ever, it would appear, and maybe it's just that preseason injuries have always carried extra drama because they seem so unnecessary. But whenever you're banging people of this size into each other at this speed, you're likely to find out there ain't no cure for the summertime news.