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A year ago this man’s knee was scary. Now he’s just scary, but his knee is fine.

There are far too many things to remember in this life. It starts with groceries, and the apparent urgency to return home with ham to make sandwiches for the following week. But what kind of ham? Black forest seems safe, though there’s also something happening over there with honey glaze. And look, there’s smoked ham too.

This is an internal debate I have nearly every Saturday afternoon (no, you’re awesome), and it’s one of many ultimately useless and mundane cognitive fights which push more long-term thoughts into the dusty mental shelves at the back. There’s such an abundance of both things to think about daily and sheer information that sorting through the most relevant and sensible items feels impossible.

This is what creates the recency effect, and in the NFL, it’s what creates the injury-prone label which lingers in a leech-like fashion.

In some form we have this discussion each summer as the calendar is about to flip to July, and the heart of fantasy football draft season creeps closer. So consider this both another public service announcement then, but also a more in-depth exploration.

For fantasy and reality purposes, there’s always a player (or three) who’s ability to break himself is especially concerning. In fake footballing, said player’s draft value will often fall as much as a full round from where he would be drafted if bone busting and muscling ripping wasn’t an issue. But since the foundation of fantasy football is the balance between risk and reward, and risk management is always a foremost thought, we’ll favor Player X since he’s been more healthy recently, over Player Y who hasn’t.

That’s the recency effect, and the bias it forms. Last year, Frank DuPont (or Fantasy Douche, his slightly more vulgar Twitter moniker) used the common view of Matthew Stafford prior to 2011 as a prime example to illustrate how perception often trumps reality.

At that time, the Lions quarterback had sustained multiple shoulder injuries throughout his first two seasons which were the result of crushing blows and awkward falls. He appeared in only 13 games during the 2009 and 2010 seasons, a two-year stretch when he could have started 32 games. That led to the conclusion among some that Stafford was more susceptible to an injury, even though I’m not sure how one goes about not busting when Julius Peppers plants your shoulder squarely into the ground.

Then all Stafford did in 2012 was throw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, with that yardage finishing just shy of Dan Marino’s single-season record at the time (5,084). For DuPont, that led to three thought processes regarding Stafford as an injury-prone player, all of which were flawed.

The talk of injury proneness is gone.  A reasonable question to ask is which of the following is most likely to be correct as to Stafford’s injury proneness?

  1. Stafford has been cured of his injury proneness.
  2. Stafford is still injury prone but just happened to string together a season of consecutive starts without becoming injured.
  3. Our collective perception of Stafford as injury prone was simply wrong to begin with.

It doesn’t matter which is correct because they’re all problematic for the discussion of injury proneness.  Both the second and third possibilities are essentially acknowledgments that we don’t have the ability to perceive injury proneness in a way that will be helpful in forecasting the future.  The first possibility, that injury proneness could be cured, is essentially an acknowledgment that it doesn’t even exist because if injury proneness is anything, it is a difference in physiology.

But what further demonstrated DuPont’s thinking (and specifically, flawed conclusion No. 2) was the reaction after Stafford left a preseason game last August with what was later diagnosed as a broken blood vessel in his left hand. One “featured columnist” over at the Internet’s favorite SEO machine was quite content to skate freely on the surface, falling back on a tidy narrative.

While Stafford has taken some pretty massive hits during the course of his young NFL career, I dare you to go find a quarterback in the NFL that hasn’t gotten his clock cleaned once or twice.

For all the league does to protect its quarterbacks, you would be naive to think that the position still isn’t the most dangerous in the game. These guys get hit hard every single time they step onto the field.

The great ones just find ways to keep playing.

Stafford took a huge step in the right direction in 2011, but I don’t think anybody would argue with the fact that we need to see the same resiliency again and then some more after that, as well.

Stafford’s 2012 season wasn’t nearly on par with his 2011 brilliance (4,967 passing yards, but with only 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions). But he still started every game, meaning he’s now started 32 straight games. Here’s the tally then: two seasons of being injury prone and being a “China doll” while starting only 13 times, and two while fully healthy, and starting every game. Which is it then?

While there are certainly measures offensive players can take in the effort to minimize injury risk (a quarterback can get rid of the ball faster, and quarterbacks, running backs, and all pass catchers can get out of bounds while running near the sideline), that doesn’t mean health is a skill. Health is primarily luck, and injuries are sudden, random, and violent events.

The goal here isn’t to imply that a player who’s more susceptible to injury absolutely doesn’t exist. Simple common sense dictates that if a running back rips apart his knee, then sustaining damage there again may be easier. But the problem is in the injury prone label, and its implication that there are certain body types which can’t withstand the pressure and pounding.

Last fall I talked to Jene Bramel, a pediatrician and an injury expert over at Football Guys. He said that medical science may progress to a point where we can accurately gauge injury proneness, but it’s not there yet.

Medical science may progress to a point where genetic and biometric testing could reliably determine whether one player may be more likely to be injured than another. But there’s more to predicting injuries than knowing whether an athlete has an increased anatomic, biometric, or physiologic risk of injury.

For now, I think it’s important to realize that some players are labeled injury prone despite injuries that are largely out of their control. And that just because a player has been prone to injury doesn’t necessarily mean he will be prone to injury.

The bolded part is significant, which is why it’s bolded.

Two routine examples of injury prone players are running backs Ryan Mathews and Darren McFadden. Neither player has put together a full 16-game season yet, but one is the prime example of poor luck, while the absentee level may have been greatly exaggerated with the other.

The former is Mathews, who’s missed 10 of a possible 48 games in his three-year career. But much of that missed time has been the result of randomness falling very much out of his favor, including the highly improbable feat of Mathews breaking both his left and right collarbone this past season. He’s blamed luck, and he’s right, though the Chargers wisely purchased insurance during free agency in the form of Danny Woodhead.

With McFadden, though his highest single-season games played is 13, his overall DNP (did not play) count sits at a surprisingly modest 31 percent of the total games he’s been eligible for since his rookie season in 2008. Much of his sideline time came from the ultimate lady luck throwdown for a running back: a Lisfranc injury in 2011, which led to nine missed games right when McFadden seemed primed for a breakout year (he had 614 yards and four touchdowns on only 113 carries, and 154 yards and a touchdown on 19 receptions).

Running backs are often branded with the injury prone label, but the frequency of their injuries — and therefore, also the frequency with which a player is labelled as being injury prone — is tied to how often they have to face contact.

During a particularly outstanding day, a wide receiver may catch, say, 12 balls. In fact, the all-time single-game record is 21, which belongs to Brandon Marshall. In 2012, there were 23 running backs who averaged 15 or more carries per game. The sheer volume of hits running backs absorb eliminates any thought that staying healthy is an acquired skill. Adrian Peterson, the most elite of the league’s elite backs, shredded his knee at the end of the 2011 season, and a year ago there was concern about his ability to perform. The injury prone radar was humming, but his 2012 season then ended quite historically (nine yards short of the single-season record).

If Peterson blows out his knee again this fall in Week 4, will the injury prone possibility return, even after that historic season? What about Trent Richardson? Sure, he’s had multiple injuries since leaving Alabama to become the Browns’ third overall pick last spring, and he was held out of some offseason training activities. Those feed the injury prone beast, but the fact that he played through 11 games with broken ribs — therefore showing an ability to power through an injury, and not let it completely rob him of opportunities to contribute — is usually ignored.

Lastly, it’s often assumed that when a quarterback is generally more mobile, he’s consequently more susceptible to an injury. This has been fueled by Michael Vick for years, and more recently by Robert Griffin III, who’s recovery from multiple torn ligaments is still proceeding swimmingly. With the growth of zone-read offenses, the argument has been made — most notably by Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — that a quarterback is actually safer when he’s running out of the pocket, especially on designed runs. In that environment, the quarterback can prepare for contact and control it, as he has the option to slide, or get out of bounds. He’s dictating the terms of the contact with the play developing as he moves forward, whereas in the pocket a quarterback is a planted target as the defense tees off.

The assumption that mobile quarterbacks are widely more vulnerable to injury than conventional quarterbacks is surprisingly false. In February, Slate did a study in which the games started and games lost due to injury for each team’s primary starting quarterback were tallied between 2002 and 2012 (a total of 324 observations). The mobile quarterbacks in the sample were found using the amount of rush attempts per start, and the amount of rush attempts in relation to the overall offensive plays in a game.

The result? No difference whatsoever. Both mobile and conventional quarterbacks tended to lose between 11 and 14 percent of their starts to injury throughout the study period.

There are players who get injured often, and there are players who have repeatedly injured a specific area, and there’s a fine reason to worry about said area (hi, Rob Gronkowski). But generally, they’re more unlucky than vulnerable.

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