The AFC North Injury Report (Unofficial)

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Matt Freed photo

This may seem like an odd subject for a post, but the whole question of injuries has a strange fascination for me. I suspect it is connected with the cognitive dissonance, you might say, I feel in regards to the subject at large, particularly in terms of head injuries.

A couple of years ago I read a series the New York Times ran throughout the baseball season, following Russell Martin, who was then catching for the Yankees. (He was signed by the Pirates the year after, and is now with the Toronto Blue Jays.) One of the things which was detailed was the brutal physical toll catching takes on the body. Martin’s replacement on the Pirates, Fransisco Cervelli, tweeted a picture of himself after a game at Wrigley Field in which he had been hit by so many errant balls that it literally looked as if he had been beaten up. Sandy Koufax, a long-time pitcher for the Dodgers, retired at age 30, as detailed in a lovely article in Sports Illustrated from 2014:

In the last 26 days of his career, including a loss in the 1966 World Series, Koufax started seven times, threw five complete-game wins and had a 1.07 ERA. He clinched the pennant for Los Angeles for the second straight year with a complete game on two days rest. Everyone knew he was pitching with traumatic arthritis in his left elbow, but how bad could it be when he pitched like that?

It was this bad: Koufax couldn’t straighten his left arm — it was curved like a parenthesis. He had to have a tailor shorten the left sleeve on all his coats. Use of his left arm was severely limited when he wasn’t pitching. On bad days he’d have to bend his neck to get his face closer to his left hand so that he could shave. And on the worst days he had to shave with his right hand. He still held his fork in his left hand, but sometimes he had to bend closer to the plate to get the food into his mouth.

His elbow was shot full of cortisone several times a season. His stomach was always queasy from the cocktail of anti-inflammatories he swallowed before and after games, which he once said made him “half-high on the mound.” He soaked his elbow in an ice bath for 30 minutes after each game, his arm encased in an inner tube to protect against frostbite. And even then his arm would swell an inch. He couldn’t go on like this, not when his doctors could not rule out the possibility that he was risking permanent damage to his arm.
And this is baseball, a gentle sport compared to what we watch every Sunday. And it just seems there is an ever-increasing epidemic of injuries in the NFL. I find myself wondering how much of it is the whole “bigger stronger faster” issue and how much is reporting. But injuries are, as Ivan Cole noted in his series “Roasting the Goose,” reducing the quality of the product.
The Bengals are a prime example, and we’ll begin with them. They still have their “franchise” quarterback, whatever that means, but who is he throwing to? And who is running the ball? Mostly guys you never heard of. (One of the guys you have heard of, Brandon LaFell, was limited in practice this week but will probably play.) Here is their situation:
Players on IR:
  • RB Giovanni Bernard
  • CB William Jackson (the Bengals’ 1st round pick this year)
  • DT Andrew Billings (their fourth-round pick, and a guy a lot of people thought the Steelers were going to take)
  • DT Marcus Hardison
  • CB Chykie Brown

Players out for this Sunday:

  • DE Wallace Gilberry
  • WR AJ Green
  • S Derron Smith

Their 2nd TE and, of all things, their long snapper, are doubtful for the game. Eight other players were limited in practice for part of the week.

They also have a player still on the PUP list, although presumably if he can’t come back soon that’s it—DT Brandon Thompson.

The Browns are such a hot mess it’s hard to know where to start. Certainly injuries have played a part in this, particularly at the quarterback position, where it is possible that Robert Griffin III, out since Week 1, may be back. Let’s look at what else is going on there:

Players on IR:

  • OL Joel Bitonio
  • OL John Greco
  • WR Rannell Hall
  • DL Nile Lawrence-Stampie
  • K Patrick Murray
  • RB Rajion Neal
  • SB Nate Orchard
  • WR Dennis Parks
  • DB Jordan Poyer
  • OL Austin Reiter
  • RB Glenn Winston
  • DL Dylan Wynn

You could practically make a team with the guys they have on IR. As far as Sunday’s game, only QB Cody Kessler is out (with the concussion he suffered in the game vs. the Steelers two weeks ago.) Two DBs, Tranon Williams and Ed Reynolds, are questionable, and six other guys were limited at some point this past week, including CB Joe Haden and WR Andrew Hawkins.

The Browns also have two players who are out for the season because of other sorts of wounds—WR Josh Gordon, an extraordinary talent who can’t stay clean and Besmond Bryant (who is on the Reserve/Non-Football Injury list.)

The Ravens are in better shape than they were a year ago, both record-wise and injury-wise. In fact, they have gotten a number of important players back in recent weeks, including Elvis Dumervil, Steve Smith, and so on. Their IR list is still extensive, though:

  • CB Kyle Arrinton
  • CB Maurice Canady
  • WR Kaelin Clay
  • DT Carl Davis
  • DT Willie Henry
  • DE Bronson Kaufusi
  • S Kendrick Lewis
  • LB Cavellis Luckett
  • WR Chris Matthews
  • T Stephane Nembot
  • CB Sheldon Price
  • CB Jumal Rolle
  • TE Ben Watson
  • OL De’Ondre Wesley
  • TE Maxx Williams

On this list are their 2015 2nd-round pick (Maxx Williams) and their 2016 3rd-round pick (Bronson Kaufusi), 4th round pick (Willie Henry) 6th-round pick (Maurice Canady) and 2016 UDFAs Cavellis Luckett and Stephane Nembot. That’s practically half of their draft class.

As for Sunday, the rest of their TEs (Crockett Gilmore,) RB Lorenzo Taliaferro, and an offensive lineman (Alex Lewis) are out. RB Javorius Allen is doubtful. WR Kamar Aiken and CB Jimmy Smith are questionable, and a couple more offensive linemen didn’t practice until Friday.

So let’s look at the Steelers. As unhappy as we’ve been about the injury situation, we may find ourselves counting our blessings:

Injured Reserve:

  • LB Kevin Anderson
  • CB Senquez Golson
  • OT Ryan Harris
  • OT Jerald Hawkins
  • DE Cameron Heyward
  • LB Steven Johnson
  • G Cole Manhart
  • WR Canaan Severin
  • C Valerian Ume-Ezeoke
  • C Cody Wallace
  • WR Markus Wheaton

If you don’t recognize a couple of the OL guys, it’s because they were signed to replace injured guys and immediately got injured themselves.

Because of the mini-bye, and because the Steelers finally gave up on some guys, the injury report looks better than it has all year. They will only be missing two players on Sunday—Darrius Heyward-Bey and RB DeAngelo Williams.

And of course Martavis Bryant is on the Reserve/Suspended list. Alas.

Interestingly, as bad as things seem for the Bengals, they are actually in better shape, numbers-wise, than anyone else in the AFC North. And it’s pretty hard for the Steelers to feel sorry for anyone else in the WR/TE category…

This is one division, and by my count that is a full team—43 players who are out for the season, not counting the suspended guys, and an additional nine ruled out for Sunday’s games. Then there are the additional handful of guys who may not play. That seems crazy to me. But I suspect there is nothing special about the AFC North in this regard.

Obviously at least some of the guys on these lists are never going to see their name in lights. Cavellis Luckett and Canaan Severin and Rannell Hall and so on may never make a roster after this year. But most of those names are definitely contributors to their teams.

I once asked Ivan Cole a question. He had described to me the two-a-day summer football practices at Peabody High School. On a dirt field which they sprayed with oil to keep the dust down. He said the guys didn’t bother to shower at lunchtime because they were just going to go back out and get covered with oily dirt again in the afternoon. The question I asked was in relation to the stories you hear every year about kids with heat prostration and worse during high school football practices. It seems to me that the coaches were much less concerned about player hydration and such-like back in Ivan’s day. (I’m guessing they had never heard the term “hydration,” and if they had they would laugh, or consider it a wussy idea.)  And yet you didn’t see players going down left and right.

So, I asked, why is that? Ivan didn’t even hesitate before answering that a) the kids lived in homes that weren’t air-conditioned, and b) they played outside all day anyhow when they weren’t at practice. They were acclimated to the conditions in a way modern kids hardly ever are.

I wonder if something similar has taken place with the current generation of NFL players. Mike Tomlin noted a few weeks ago that the morning after the Cleveland game, when they would be playing again Thursday night, James Harrison was in the weight room. At 7:30. He had probably already been there for some time. He was probably more or less alone. He is an octogenarian in football terms, and yet he seems to be in better shape (and a whole lot less frequently injured) than the young guys. Makes me wonder.

One of these days I’m going to go back as far as I can and see what the equivalent lists would look like. In the meantime, any speculation you would like to put in the comments would be most welcome.

3 comments

  • Guess I will go with the simple answer. There is no way for the human body to acclimate to blunt force trauma. Players only hope they can play in the next game. Yea there are lots of variables, but as a player if you expose yourself long enough to these forces a major injury will find you. Maybe Harrison’s strength, flexibility, and endurance regime makes him more “bullet-proof” or maybe he is just a little bit luckier than most.

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    • I expect you’re right. I once tried to figure out the increases in speed and mass over the years and then calculate the increased force, but not being a physicist and all I wasn’t satisfied I had the correct calculation. But there is no doubt players are faster than 20 years ago, and bigger, although not at all positions, and this is starting to reverse. But I’m hoping there is more to it.

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  • Sandy Koufax was born in Brooklyn, signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers as a bonus baby, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was the last pitcher ever to pitch for Brooklyn, throwing a scoreless ninth inning in the last game of the 1957 season, a 2-1 loss at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia on September 29, 1957. After the 1957 season, they moved to Los Angeles, and he played with the Dodgers until he retired after the 1966 season. In fact, Koufax never pitched professionally for any team other than the Dodgers. He signed as a bonus baby at age 19 for $14,000, and his signing bonus exceeded the $4000 limit imposed by MLB at the time, which forced the Dodgers to keep him on their roster for two years. So Koufax never played even a single game in the minor leagues. Not a one. That’s enough trivia for today. Except for this:

    In 1954, Koufax was a student at the University of Cincinnati and was said to have an exceptional fastball. A New York Giant scout too a look at him and filed a glowing report. Nothing. The Pirates brought him to Forbes Field, where he actually broke the thumb of Pirates’ bullpen catcher Sam Narron with a fastball. Pirates’ GM Branch Rickey raved that Koufax had the best arm he had ever seen. But the Dodgers offered Koufax that big $14,000 bonus, and Sandy signed with his hometown team and never wore another uniform other than Dodger Blue. The Dodgers’ play-by-play announcer at that time, of course, was a young Vin Scully.

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