Did COVID-19’s effect on the NFL preseason lead to a spike of injuries?

It seems like one week each year, usually early in the NFL season, there will be a huge number of injuries, and fans and media analysts rush to find a cause. Maybe it’s a lockout during the offseason. Maybe it’s a change to the offseason workouts or training camp. This year, maybe it’s the changes to the NFL preseason brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, in just the second week of the regular season, we had a “spike” in injuries, and many want to point fingers at the coronavirus. I offer my perspective on it in my latest newspaper column.

Numerous star players go down in Week 2 of the NFL

Week 2 of the NFL season was a rough one. There were enough injuries Sunday to make any die-hard fan or fantasy football player cringe.

New York Giants running back and top fantasy pick Saquon Barkley tore his ACL. San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa likely has a ruptured ACL as well, although as of this writing, the injury has not been confirmed.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tavon Young, and Washington Football Team guard Brandon Scherff also suffered serious knee injuries.

Also read:
The ACL epidemic in NFL training camps

Add to that list Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, both of whom suffered high ankle sprains. Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock injured the AC joint in his shoulder.

Adding in numerous starters who also suffered knee, Achilles, hamstring and other injuries, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell argued that you can make a talented roster just using players who were injured in Week 2.

Is COVID-19 to blame for the injuries?

While it would be easy to speculate the lack of preseason games this year might be the cause for these injuries, I’m hesitant to blame COVID-19.

In July, the NFL announced it was cancelling preseason games in response to the high number of coronavirus cases in the United States. Options to delay or adjust the regular season were considered, but the season started on time when the Chiefs beat the Texans on September 10.

Also read:
Is the NFL lockout to blame for a spike in injuries?

Did an altered NFL preseason play a role in these injuries?

It’s certainly possible that the altered preseason with no games led to the injuries we saw Sunday. In 2011, after an offseason lockout, 10 players suffered Achilles tendon ruptures before the first preseason games had been played. In most years, we usually see about eight Achilles ruptures – for the entire season.

But with the injuries we saw this week, I’m inclined to say it was bad luck and not the result of the pandemic schedule changes. If we had seen more muscle injuries, like hamstring, hip flexor, quad or calf injuries – and we did see a few of them – then I might agree to blame the virus.

With injuries like high ankle sprains and AC joint injuries, which are often traumatic, resulting from hard tackles and awkward landings, it’s hard to see how playing a few meaningless preseason games would have decreased their risk. Plus, with players like Barkley and McCaffrey, I wonder how much they would have played this summer anyway.

I’ve written in this column several times before, and I’ll state it here again, we have to be careful before we assume a cause-and-effect relationship between a schedule change and an apparent spike in injuries. Until we have data for the entire season, or even several years of data, we can’t truly know if it’s a trend or just bad luck.

Of course, maybe we will see even more players go down with injuries week after week. Time will tell. Meanwhile, rather than speculate on whether COVID-19 and the havoc it wreaked on the preseason schedule is knocking out many top players, let’s just be happy we have football to watch at all.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the September 24, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.