The NFL’s Injury Epidemic

Saquon Barkley, Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, Christian McCaffery, Malik Hooker. Other than being big name stars on their respective teams, these players have another thing in common:  By the second week of the 2020 National Football League (NFL) season, they were all lost to injuries that will keep them off the field for multiple weeks. After only two weeks of regular season play in the 2020 season, 360 players have been put on their teams respective team’s injury report ahead of the slate of scheduled Week Three games. In Week Two alone, eight players tore or are presumed to have torn their ACLs, a season-ending injury that was far less frequent before this season.For some teams, this injury bug has made their front offices reevaluate their lofty playoff goals for the season. For others, like the New York Jets and the Detroit Lions, who have 20 players and 12 players, respectively, on the injury report this week (both above the average of 11) is another lost season to add to a string of poor performances over the last few years. 

There are a number of reasons that this wave of injuries has occurred, the chief among them is the influence of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the NFL’s efforts to minimize the effects of the pandemic on the season, with players tested before every game and trackers on each player’s practice jersey to help with the NFL’s contact tracing protocols, it continues to impact player health. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, NFL teams had shortened training camps and entirely scrapped their usual slate of preseason games. Without preseason, teams had little to no contact football before the start of the season and less time to prepare for the physicality of an NFL season after an elongated offseason. There was also an early wave of injuries as players returned to training camps, which could be indicative of a similar effect to the one playing out right now. 

Before this past weekend, it seemed as though none of that wouldn’t matter, since the level of play has been superb under the circumstances — until the injuries started. But, this is not the only time this type of impact has been seen on an NFL field. During the 2011 lockout-shortened season, which is the most similar reference point, injuries increased by 25 percent; specifically, achilles injuries doubled, and hamstring injuries increased by 44 percent. These types of injuries carry similar recovery times and severity to the ACL tears that are frequent in the league this season. Both the 2011 and 2020 NFL preseasons were cancelled. 

Despite the circumstances surrounding the NFL’s injuries being unique to this year, they are not unique to football specifically. Major League Baseball (MLB) teams only had about three weeks to get ready for the season after it was announced they would begin play in late July, leading to the worry that pitchers will not have enough time to prepare. While teams were being careful with their pitchers’ arms and gradually increasing their pitch counts, the extended break caused the pandemic and the inability to train in professional environments left players about five weeks behind their usual schedules. With a shortened season being played on a condensed schedule, these issues were of large concern. Without the ability to train, front offices and doctors alike wondered if pitchers’ arms would be as durable as they are normally and if they would be able to stay healthy for the whole season. As it turns out, the answer seems to be no on both accounts: through 18 games, the number of pitchers on the injured list (56 at the time) was almost triple what it had been the same number of games in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Many analysts think it was due to the Covid-19 pandemic delaying and shortening spring training and offseason workouts, the same reason many suspect are causing a similar rise in NFL injuries.

However, the San Francisco 49ers, who had five players injured during their Sept. 20 game against the Jets, believe another factor is to blame for their players’ injuries. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan called the turf “sticky” and believed that it, not the cancellation of preseason and training camp due to the coronavirus, led to their players’ injuries. But that would only explain their injuries, not the trend around the league this past weekend. The only other player on a team that played at Metlife to get hurt this weekend, Saquon Barkley, was playing at Soldier Field in Chicago when he got hurt. After Shanahan’s comments, an investigation was launched by the NFL into new turf at Metlife Stadium, home to the Jets and the New York Giants, but the turf was ruled safe for play for Week Three, when the 49ers returned to Metlife Stadium to play the Giants.

Players, coaches and fans alike clamored for the start of the 2020 NFL season and the return to normalcy that it represented in the midst of the pandemic. However, after two weeks, it seems that the players are beginning to pay for it with their bodies, and the ‘new normal’ continues to invade even the sports world’s strongest marker of normalcy.