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Matthew Stafford Can Look to Steve Bartkowski's Early Career For Hope

The optimism in Detroit is surging. Part of that is confidence in the new regime and new coaching staff, part is the impact of Ndamukong Suh, part is the freakishness of Calvin Johnson, and some it is based on the anticipation of Matthew Stafford getting an opportunity to show what he can do, three years after he was selected first overall.

Stafford’s previous two seasons were ended with injuries–a knee injury his rookie year and then two shoulder separations that limited him to three games last year. The whispers became loud that the 23-year-old is injury prone, and there is genuine concern about how the shoulder will hold up after the injuries last year.

I don’t discount that some players have a skill of staying healthy, but I also think there is so much noise and luck involved that it’s dangerous to try to predict who will continue to have good health and bad health in the future. Remember “Fragile Fred” Taylor? The last half of his career, he stayed healthier than most other running backs. If we assigned injuries to a made up population at random, we would see some guys appear “injury prone” and some stay healthy. It’s hard to know what the case with Stafford really is.

So is there hope for a young prospect who misses substantial time with multiple injuries? Not everyone comes back. Greg Cook, a star rookie for Paul Brown’s Bengals back in 1969, who averaged a whopping 9.4 yards per attempt, never recovered from a shoulder injury that season. However, if we look for guys with varying degrees of success after multiple early injuries and acquiring an “injury prone” label.

Most recently, Sexy Rex Grossman played in only a handful of games his first three seasons because of injury. In 2004, he suffered a torn knee ligament after three games. The following year, again slated as the starter, he had a broken ankle in preseason, and caused controversy when he came back to start for the playoffs.

Phil Simms didn’t have the initial injury problems, but from 1981 to 1983, went through about as unlucky a stretch as any quarterback could have. He separated a shoulder in 1981, suffered a season ending knee injury in preseason in 1982, and then after being benched by new coach Bill Parcells to start 1983, got injured in the first game back when his thumb was dislocated on a helmet, ending his third straight season. Simms was 30 by the time he emerged and began leading the team; Stafford is still only 23.

The most similar case, though, might be fellow first overall pick Steve Bartkowski. Bartkowski showed promise his rookie year, but it ended with a dislocated elbow. His second season came to an end with a knee injury in the fifth game, the result of a face mask that twisted his body. He was slow recovering the following year, and needed a second procedure that cost him half the season.

Bartkowski rebounded in his fourth year, and led the moribund Atlanta franchise to its first ever playoff appearance, and two years later had them as the #1 overall seed in the NFC. The knee injuries plagued Bartkowski through his career, eventually causing him to retire, but for a five year stretch, he was able to play at a pretty good level, and the Falcons made the playoffs three times. Grossman’s first healthy season also resulted in the Bears making the playoffs (and Super Bowl), while the Giants reached the playoffs when Simms was able to stay healthy.

This is not to suggest that anything is a certainty. Shedding that injury prone label has been done before, though, and Detroit would not be the first team to make a playoff run with a young quarterback who had difficulty staying healthy up to that point.

[photo via Getty]

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