Wilson's Word: Trying to understand injuries

The Colts already have 11 players on injured reserve, and the NFL regular season hasn't started yet. What's going on? Accepting a rational explanation isn't always easy.

When you scan the Indianapolis Colts roster, down at the bottom is a list of 11 players already on Injured Reserve.

Yeah, 11 is a lot. Too many. Admittedly, it’s a frustrating trend.

But what’s become far too commonplace in today’s sports society are fans and media questioning the Colts’ doctors and/or strength and conditioning personnel when running back Vick Ballard is lost to an Achilles tear a year after blowing out a knee or when offensive left guard Donald Thomas rips up the same quad that cost him almost all of last season.

When people ask, I try to explain that NFL players are bigger, strong and faster in today’s game and when pushed to the limit, performing as they do in what has to be considered an unusual activity, bodies break. They’re human.

That doesn’t wash with a lot of people, and I get that. Many of us are conditioned to want answers to questions. We analyze the result, we look for a cause to explain the effect. And somebody, especially in sports, must be to blame.

I’ve resisted the temptation at times to think that way. Geez, they must be doing something wrong. Eleven guys already? And we haven’t even seen the Colts play a regular-season game? Something must be screwed up.

Maybe fans are right when they say that. As crazy as it sounds, we are also conditioned to question medical professionals, that’s why there’s such a thing as a second opinion. It doesn’t matter that these doctors — my brother is one — have excelled through years of education to get to where they are in keeping us alive or healthy and making the big bucks.

But consider this when trying to come to some sense of understanding. Colts coach Chuck Pagano informed the players at the beginning of training camp that the emphasis in workouts was going to be on quality, not quantity. He was wary of guys coming back from serious injuries, guys like wide receiver Reggie Wayne, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, Ballard and Thomas.

Seriously, you want to know how to cover Wayne? Let Pagano decide when the guy practices and plays. The coach was dialing back the workload for No. 87 in the first practice of camp. Wayne played just two series in the third preseason game. That was his entire game time for August. And while you could tell he didn’t care for being held out, he understood Pagano’s goal: “I want you when it counts.”

I didn’t care if I saw Wayne at all in preseason and was surprised he got those two series. These NFL players put themselves through so much through the course of a season, it just doesn’t make sense to see guys hurt in August.

This brings me back to some semblance of a point about so many injuries. People question doctors. So be it. They’re used to it. I’m of the belief that they know what they’re talking about more than we do, that is, they know the athletes and their bodies better than any of us.

In talking with Dr. Bert Mandelbaum about the Wayne ACL injury story I just posted, his explanation about serious NFL injuries resonated. He’s studied ACL injuries for two decades, from young girls playing soccer in Southern California to today’s NFL. And he’s analyzed all the information, looked at the factors, and talks at length about the energy of an injury, that is, what an athlete puts his body through to perform.

The key word, well, he uses a lot of them, is how the body of an elite athlete adapts to this accelerated environment. It’s not common for human beings to do what these guys do. Asking their bodies to constantly adapt is also more than most of us experience personally in our lifetimes.

It’s common for those bodies to fail, and Mandelbaum makes a lot of sense when he talks about training the mind to control the body. I know Wayne disagrees with the doc’s take, but Mandelbaum makes a reasonable assertion that athletes can prevent many of these serious injuries by managing the energy and how they control their bodies.

OK, that said, I hear what Wayne is saying, too. How do you stop in the middle of a game and say, “Hey, I’m pushing it. I’ve got to back off.” Well, you don’t. But if your mind is conditioned to operate at a certain level, you concentrate on sticking to that level. I guess the example I would use is how often do we see a receiver give up on a route because the pass is obviously overthrown. We marvel at how Marvin Harrison kept going and made that one-handed catch about a decade ago in Tennessee, right? But most guys would have recognized in a split-second that overthrown ball was uncatchable and stopped running.

It’s not about questioning the effort of these guys, either. It’s about playing smart. I would much rather have seen Wayne finish the season than try to reach back across his body, put pressure on his right knee when he rotated his hips, and then the ACL gives out.

Fans don’t have to take Dr. Mandelbaum’s word for it. They can believe what they want, and will. But the implantation of his PEP Program has seen a dramatic reduction in ACL injuries in young athletes, in those who compete at the NCAA level and in FIFA soccer players.

I’m sticking with what I’ve always said, folks, that bigger, stronger, faster is great, and bodies inevitably break when continually pushed to the limit. But the chat with Dr. Mandelbaum has provided me with insight to look at some of these injuries differently.

When I see Wayne’s injury again, he did do something instinctively that he usually doesn’t. He did put stress on his lower body, trying to reach back for that pass, instead of continuing his running motion at full speed.

Maybe there’s something to the theory that such injuries can be prevented, that it is a question of the mind controlling the body more consistently through the training Mandelbaum has been preaching for so many years.

I prefer to give that more credence than to just write it off as a team doctor or strength guy not doing his job well when another NFL player is lost for the season.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.


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