Apr 13, 2017
Rush to Judgment

Defying conventional wisdom, a new study suggests that NFL running backs who carry the ball more may be less likely to suffer injuries. This contradicts many preconceived notions about usage and its relationship to injuries.

Conducted by the University of Colorado’s Sports Medicine and Performance Center using data from ESPN and team injury reports, the study looked at 275 NFL running backs over 11 seasons (2004 to 2014). Researchers compared a player’s carry count in a season to how many games he missed the following year because of injury. Group A was a lower-use group, which included a total of 212 backs who had 150 to 250 carries in the season of interest. Group B included 63 backs who ran the ball more than 300 times in the season of interest.

The results were not what the researchers expected. In the high-carry group, 49 percent of players missed at least one game due to injury the following season, as opposed to 66 percent of players in the lower-carry group. This means that players who were carrying the ball more actually had a lower injury rate than those who carried the ball less. Researchers were surprised by the results but offered a possible explanation.

“You could conclude a lot of things from that, but it may just show that, potentially, those players that do carry a lot are more durable, and that’s the reason they can carry and continue to do so year after year,” Eric McCarty, MD, Chief of Sports Medicine and Shoulder Surgery at CU Sports Medicine and one of the study’s researchers, told The Denver Post. “It was very interesting for us to see the results because that’s not what we expected.”

The debate around overuse injuries in athletics and how to best prevent them has been ongoing. Dr. McCarty and his team were inspired by a study out of Columbia University that showed Tommy John surgery among high school baseball pitchers in New York has increased over time. It is believed that limiting a pitcher’s reps would help preserve their arm and protect them from injury, so the CU researchers decided to test a similar hypothesis with football players.

“We thought that looking at the same kind of thing with running backs, because it’s a high-profile position in the NFL that, potentially, if running backs had more carries, and especially with the physicality of the NFL, then they probably were at risk for more injury,” said Dr. McCarty, who is also the Team Physician for CU’s football team. “So that’s why we did it. It was very interesting and, in fact, didn’t turn out the way we thought it would.”

Beyond analyzing injury rates among high- and low-usage backs, the data sheds light on the inherent dangers of the running back position. Overall, 62 percent of players in the study missed at least one game due to injury the following season, with concussion being the most common reason. The study also found that rates of concussion and ACL tears were higher among lower-carry running backs. One explanation for this is that lower-carry backs are more likely to be involved in pass plays, which have been shown to lead to more concussions.

“In the first group, with the fewer carries, (nearly 11) percent of those players missed playing time during the subsequent season because of concussion, whereas only three percent of the high-carry count group did,” Dr. McCarty said. “You look at that and wonder, again, are these guys just more durable? Can they withstand impact better? But it was clear they were not having as many concussions or not missing as much playing time because of concussions like the other group did. That stood out pretty significantly.”

Photo by Keith Allison

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