NFL Preseason: What Is the Risk To Players?

Pete PazulliContributor IAugust 26, 2010

CHICAGO - AUGUST 21: Julius Peppers #90 of the Chicago Bears is attended to by trainers after an injury against the Oakland Raiders during a preseason game at Soldier Field on August 21, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. The Radiers defeated the Bears 32-17. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images


Every year each team in the NFL has four or five preseason games, and every year there are multiple players injured during these games.  These injuries are often used as proof that preseason games represent an unnecessary risk for players, especially veteran players.  

William C. Rhoden of The New York Times recently did a piece using the near injury of Brett Favre and the gash on Eli Manning’s forehead as cautionary tales against the playing of preseason games.  Rhoden makes the case that the NFL needs to eliminate preseason games and reduce the length of training camp to protect its players “who give body and blood to make the league a multibillion-dollar enterprise.” 

It's hard to argue with Rhoden’s stance, especially considering that the first two weeks of the NFL preseason have seen Washington Redskins’ franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb and Houston Texans’ rookie running back Ben Tate both go down with ankle injuries.  Tate has been placed on injured reserve and will not play this season.   

Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback, Josh Freeman, suffered a broken thumb, and his availability for the start of the regular season is in doubt.  Last season, prized rookie running back Knowshon Moreno suffered a knee injury just three plays into his first preseason game.

So every year there will be a list of players that are injured during training camp and preseason games, but how common are injuries during this time of the season?  How big a risk does this period represent to players?  A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine may provide some insight on this topic.

The study tracked the incidence of injuries during both training camp and preseason games for one NFL team over a 10-year period.  This period included a total of 427 practices and 41 preseason games.  The investigators found there was an average of over 72 injuries per preseason, with a five times higher rate of injuries during games than in training camp practices. 

In addition, major injuries requiring surgery and extended periods of restricted activity, like the one sustained by Tate, were more common during games compared to practice sessions.  On average there was one major injury sustained every second preseason game as opposed to one major injury every 28th practice session.

There was also a difference in the number of injuries sustained based upon player position.  Tights ends and secondary players suffered the highest rate of injuries. This is not surprising as both the cornerback and safety positions are predicated on speed and contact.  San Francisco rookie free safety Taylor Mays, who is 6’3” and weights 230 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at this year’s NFL Combine.  When players as large and fast as Mays are flying around the field at speeds in excess of 18 miles an hour there will always be the potential for injuries. 

Secondary players also often play prominent roles on special teams, either in coverage or return positions, where injuries are likely to occur.  The study did not distinguish whether injuries occurred during special teams play or not.  

Not surprisingly, the quarterback, kicker, and punter positions had the lowest rate of injuries.  These positions are protected from contact during practices and also have offensive lines that protect them during games.  

The most common game injuries were contusions and knee sprains, mostly MCL sprains like the one suffered by Larry Fitzgerald in the Cardinals’ first preseason game.  The most common practice injuries were knee and hamstring strains.

This study serves as solid evidence that preseason games represent a real risk to players.  Owners are the only ones that benefit from these games, as players do not receive any additional compensation, and tickets for these games are not included in season ticket packages.  

A small number of free agents can also benefit due to exposure during televised games, but veterans are certainly exposed to unnecessary injury risks during both preseason games and extended training camps.  On average each team will have two players suffer major, potentially season-ending injuries during preseason games while losing at least one other during practices.  Maybe Brett Favre knows what he is doing by “deciding” each training camp.


Data in this article is from the following article:

BT Feeley et al., Epidemiology of National Football League Training Camp Injuries From 1998 to 2007.  The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 36(8), 2008.