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Has the Lack of an Offseason Increased Running Back Injuries?

As I watched more running backs go down this week, with Tim Hightower and Earnest Graham now suffering season-ending injuries, and teams like Detroit and Tampa Bay struggling to find a healthy runner, I wondered if injuries were up this year. A lot of times, we think something and it turns out to merely be recency fooling us–what just happened is the biggest, baddest, worst, best, ever. Running backs live a risky football life, and so injuries are nothing new. It’s just a matter of degrees.

So, I thought I would take a look to see if more starting running backs had gotten hurt this year. To remain consistent, since some times have played an extra game but everyone has played six, I used the first six games for each team this year, compared to every year since Houston joined the league in 2002. Also, with a lot more effort, I could determine who was supposed to be atop every depth chart, and also look at preseason injuries. Ryan Williams and Mikel LeShoure, for example, suffered season ending injuries before the season, and backs like Arian Foster were hurt and missed the first game.

But for consistency, I settled on this. I looked at all 32 running backs who led their team in week 1 rush attempts, and if there was a tie on rush attempts, the one with more yards was used. For the last decade, I then looked at how frequently that back recorded a rush attempt in all six games to start the season (figuring that failing to do so is a sign they were hurt after leading in week 1), and how frequently that back suffered a season ending injury some time during the first 6 games.

The results showing how many of the 32 “week 1 leading” backs missed a game to injury or suffered a season ending injury by week 6:

Year		Injured	Season Ending
2011		13	2
2010		8	0
2009		9	0
2008		7	0
2007		11	1
2006		9	0
2005		9	2
2004		11	3
2003		9	1
2002		4	0

So, yes, in fact there have been more injuries of starting running backs (13 of 32) this year than in the last decade, when the average was 8.6 missing a game with injury by week 6, and the high was 11 (2004, 2007). Still, the difference between 26.7% of backs being injured by week 6 from 2002-2010, and 40.6% being injured this year is not statistically significant. We cannot rule out that it is merely random chance causing a few more injuries this year. It’s a small sample size, so getting an increase that is statistically significant would be hard, though 1.4 more injured players would have done it (who the .4 would be, I don’t know).

I do personally suspect that the increase has some relation to the lockout, rushed preseason, and lack of organized activities. Those numbers above include years when the workload was much higher early in the season for starters. This season, only one player (Montario Hardesty) has more than 30 rush attempts in a game, whereas that number was 9 in 2004. Since 2007, there have not been more than 2 games with more than 30 rush attempts for one player, and it used to happen frequently. In the last 3 years, when the shared committee approach has been en vogue, the number of injuries and season ending injuries had gone down.

While this doesn’t prove or disprove that the lockout has anything to do with it, it will be something to monitor and maybe include other positions for more sample size. If you have felt that there have been a few more injuries this year to the running backs, well, there have. Fantasy waiver wires, team trainers, and coaches having to adjust their game plans have been a little busier as well.

[photo via Getty]

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