Sports Athletes: Is Durability More Important Than Ability?

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IJune 29, 2012

Stephen Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010
Stephen Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010Greg Fiume/Getty Images

“Durability trumps ability,” was a motto emphasized by my former boss, Bud Grant, the legendary Hall of Fame coach for the Minnesota Vikings.

Coach Grant had a subtle wit as evidenced when we opened the season in the Metrodome.  Five minutes prior to kickoff, he told Crazy George—a rabble-rousing fan who roamed the stands banging a drum to drive opponents crazy—that he could not cheer in white tennis shoes because the team wore black shoes. 

This caused equipment manager Denis Ryan to scramble and find shoes that the famed cheerleader could wear.  Although the game ended with a Vikings victory, his only post-game comment was about how he had dealt with Crazy George.

Coach Grant was a firm believer that durable, consistent players were vital to teams that plan to contend.  They also enable the resilient individuals to earn lucrative contracts.  Conversely, injuries and inconsistent production hinder team performance and hurt player value. 

When healthy, Josh Hamilton is an otherworldly major league player.  However, the Texas Rangers outfielder is often injured and has a well documented history of substance abuse.  As he approaches free agency, the question for the Rangers will be "Can we replace his production?" and "How do you put an accurate value on a player who frequently has stints on the disabled list?" 

During the past four seasons, the slugger missed nearly 150 games—almost an entire season. 

Similarly, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford of the Boston Red Sox are impact players with speed and power, but have had difficulty staying on the field.  Their team struggled without them. 

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 13:  Jacoby Ellsbury #2 of the Boston Red Sox reacts after he was injured in a double play in the bottom of the fourth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays during the home opener on April 13, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.
Elsa/Getty Images

Injuries that have befallen Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have unfortunately transformed the Minnesota Twins from contenders to cellar dwellers.  With Stephen Strasburg's elbow injury, as talented as he is, his durability is the question mark going forward.

Baseball contracts usually are guaranteed; once you sign an injury-plagued player, you are obligated to pay him.  Conversely, NFL owners tend to back-load contracts that are non-guaranteed.  Wes Welker, the star wide receiver for the New England Patriots, signed a one-year franchise deal worth $9.5 million. 

Despite a league-leading 122 receptions in 2011, the Patriots did not reward him with the long-term contract he sought.  This was due to his history of injuries, including concussions.

Hard-hitting Bob Sanders, a veteran safety for the Indianapolis Colts, played six games or more only twice over the course of his eight-year NFL career.  Although Sanders signed a five-year contract in 2007 worth $37.5 million, the Colts cut him after a season-ending injury in 2010.  He lost more than $12 million remaining on his contract when he was released. 

Chad Pennington, showed some flashes of brilliance as quarterback of the New York Jets, but his inability to stay healthy—including four surgeries on his throwing arm—led the team to pursue aging, but durable, Brett Favre.  Pennington, who signed a seven-year, $64 million, back-loaded contract in 2004, was due $4.8 million in the 2008 season and significantly more in 2009 and 2010 before his release. 

The 2007 NBA Draft brought an intriguing contrast between the first and second overall picks.  Greg Oden, No. 1 pick for the Portland Trail Blazers, has endured a career marred with serious injuries.  Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, the second pick in the 2007 draft, has become one of the league’s top players and led Oklahoma City to its first NBA Finals appearance. 

The NBA championship might have looked different had Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, a former MVP, not torn his ACL during the first round of the playoffs.  Rose also missed nearly half the season battling nagging injuries including a sprained ankle and "turf toe". 

Looking back on “dynasty teams” such as the Yankees and Cowboys in the 1990s and the Patriots in the 2000s, they all share a common trait: consistency.  These clubs were able to win multiple championships largely because of their durability and team chemistry.  Ironically, it was the exit of Drew Bledsoe due to injury, which led to the rise of unlikely superstar Tom Brady.

This year, the Celtics were incredibly durable, despite their age and the declining skills of star players such as Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.  However, as Coach Grant said, "The most important ability is durability."  Healthy teams win championships.  Injured teams often wind up pondering what could have been. 

Athletes who have All-Star capabilities, but can't perform consistently will not help their teams succeed.  Remember, it was Wally Pipp's requesting the day off that gave Lou Gehrig the opportunity to become the "Iron Horse" and help lead the Yankees to numerous championships.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high-profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.