There’s a reason it feels like the Buffalo Bills never can catch a break when it comes to injuries.
That’s because over the last seven years, they rarely have.
According to research compiled by the website mangameslost.com, the Bills have had players miss 1,154 games from 2009 through 2015, the 11th-highest total in the NFL. Last year, they had 172 games missed, which ranked No. 10 in the league.
Of course, not all injuries are equal. If the New England Patriots were to lose quarterback Tom Brady for an extended period, it would be much more impactful than if third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett sprains an ankle and is sidelined for a month.
Man Games Lost accounts for that with a metric it calls “Injury Impact to Team,” or IIT. Using a player’s “approximate value,” as calculated by the website pro-football-reference.com, IIT puts a numeric value on injured players and their time missed based on how important they are to their team.
A high IIT value could come from a superstar being out for just a few weeks, or an average starter missing an entire season. Frequently, it’s some combination of both.
When the quality of player who is hurt is factored in, things get even worse for the Bills. During that same seven-year stretch, they have the fourth-highest IIT score in the NFL. Interestingly enough, the Patriots are the team most impacted by injuries over the same time period, but since Brady isn’t on that list, they’ve maintained their dominance.
Last season was a particularly difficult one for the Bills in terms of the quality of players hurt. While they ranked No. 10 in total games missed, they were second in IIT behind only New England.
Starters like Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, Aaron Williams and Kyle Williams all missed time during the year.
“It’s ridiculous the amount of injuries we’ve had,” coach Rex Ryan lamented after the Bills were officially eliminated from playoff contention after an ugly loss to Washington in December. “Is that a contributing factor? Of course. And it would be ridiculous if you don’t think it is.”
The immediate reaction by many fans was to recoil. It came off as pathetic to point to injuries after falling behind, 21-0, at halftime and allowing Kirk Cousins to look like Joe Montana.
Given a few days to think about it, though, Ryan wasn’t backing down.
“Obviously, we’ve been hit hard by the injury bug,” he said before Buffalo hosted Dallas in Week 16. “There’s no question about that. ... We’ve had, really, the middle of our defense gutted with Kyle being out, Aaron Williams, I think Aaron only played three games this year. So obviously getting those two Pro Bowl-type players back on the field would be a big help.”
Coaches generally are loath to use injuries as an excuse for poor performance, for good reason. For starters, they’re unavoidable in the NFL. A team unprepared for injuries is one that did not adequately address its depth.
They also don’t guarantee failure.
Six of the top eight teams in IIT values from 2009-15 have made it to a Super Bowl in that time. None of them, it should be noted, lost their quarterback in that season.
On the other hand, the three teams least impacted by injuries from 2009 to the present – Minnesota, Atlanta and Miami – haven’t gotten to a Super Bowl.
So a team that stays healthy is not guaranteed to be good, just as a team that deals with injuries isn’t given a death sentence in a single season.
Clearly, though, fewer injuries is a good thing, which raises the question: Why have the Bills had so many?
No doubt, bad luck plays a part. Certain injuries are impossible to avoid. But there’s no denying the Bills have had a slew of bizarre injury circumstances happen in the past few seasons.
Here is just a sampling:
• First-round draft pick Shaq Lawson underwent shoulder surgery less than three weeks after telling reporters he wouldn’t need an operation.
“The medical staff cleared him, said he can play,” General Manager Doug Whaley said the night he spent the 19th overall pick on Lawson. “Now, if something happens, it’s going to happen, but it’s nothing that we’re really worried about or we wouldn’t take him. We’ve got complete faith in our medical staff, and they signed off on him, so we’re excited to have him.”
Lawson couldn’t even make it through rookie minicamp before an operation was deemed necessary. So much for that “Day One” starter talk from Whaley at the draft.
It’s unclear how much of his rookie season Lawson will miss – ESPN’s Louis Riddick speculated during a Buffalo radio interview just a few days ago that it could be half or even the entire year.
Lawson responded by tweeting at Riddick: “can’t believe what everybody say about you.” He later deleted that.
Seemingly from the moment he was drafted, the truth about Lawson’s injury, and what the Bills knew about it, has been elusive.
• Right tackle Seantrel Henderson was hospitalized while the team was in Philadelphia as a result of his battle with Crohn’s disease. Henderson lost 20 pounds and had to undergo two surgeries as a result of his illness, which at first was not properly identified. During his recovery, none of the team’s coaches contacted him, which Henderson’s agent described as “unusual.”
• Aaron Williams was allowed to return to a game in Week Five against the Tennessee Titans with a neck injury that eventually ended his season. Originally hurt in Week Two against New England, Williams said he played the second half against Tennessee with numbness.
“That first hit, that first stop I made in the game, I reinjured it,” he said. “It’s just the fight in me. You never know if it’s gonna be your last game or not. Not really thinking of my health and the future. I was thinking in the moment.”
Of course, that’s what the team’s medical staff is for. Williams had surgery in early November. At that time, doctors told him there was only a 50-50 chance he’d be able to resume his playing career.
Ryan was pressed on why Williams was allowed to return to the game against the Titans.
“Well, he was sore and everything else, we all knew that after the game, but he had finished the game, so you know, I wasn’t sure of the extent of the injury,” the coach said. “Our trainers took him to the doctors and all that stuff and they advised us that he should be out for a few weeks.”
That ended up being the entire season – and a 50-percent chance it could have been his career.
“As a head coach you lean on people that are a lot more qualified than yourself. That’s what I do and obviously that’s not hard to find,” Ryan said. “We’re never going to place somebody out there if we think he’s at substantial risk.”
• McCoy struggled through a hamstring injury the first three weeks of 2015 – averaging just 3.39 yards per carry during that time, before ultimately being shut down for two games.
• Going back to the Doug Marrone era, the ex-Bills coach famously was “110 percent” certain that quarterback EJ Manuel would play in the 2013 season finale against the New England Patriots, only to miss the game because of a knee injury.
Marrone felt so burned, he comically had Scott Berchtold, the team’s vice president of communications, read the injury report at practice the following season. Of course, every player heals differently, so timelines for recovery should never be treated as a certainty, which made Marrone’s reaction baffling.
Despite the oddities involving injuries, the Bills have shown an unwavering commitment to their medical and training staffs.
This offseason, Bud Carpenter was promoted to director of athletic training operations, while Shone Gipson was named head athletic trainer and Chris Fischetti head of rehabilitation and injury management services.
Carpenter has been with the team for 32 years. He was named to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year, and spoke then about the changes in his field in that time.
“Night and day,” is how he described it, recalling how when he started with former team trainer Ed Abramoski, the two of them would need to get 125 players ready for two-a-day practices. “Back then we had a small medical staff. They were very good, but now we’ve expanded (to) all the bells and whistles that you can have in athletic training.
“Sports medicine itself is a completely different field. Look what we can do with athletes. The surgeries that now are capable. ... Being able to get the athlete back in a reasonable, safe time is critical.”
According to data from the NFL, there were 271 concussions during the 2015 season, an increase of 31 percent over the 2014 season.
There were also 56 ACL tears in 2015, up from 49 the previous year, and 170 MCL sprains, up from 139 in 2014. As players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster, an inherently violent game struggles with how to mitigate the risks.
Since 2013, the Bills have contracted with Catapult, an Australian company that provides GPS technology to sports teams. The GPS units, which are sewn into a player’s jersey, track things like distance run, top speed, change of direction and acceleration and deceleration.
The program is designed to try to prevent injury by identifying which players may be at risk given their workload, and also to help determine when a player is ready to return to the field.
Given the amount of injuries the Bills have had, and the potential impact on the team’s record, the ability of the team’s medical and training staffs to do that has fallen under close scrutiny.
“It has, and that’s OK,” Carpenter said. “The key to it is the accuracy of it from a reporting standpoint. It’s too hard for announcers to speculate, when all they are doing is that. But when you look at that camera and several million people as you’re taking care of an athlete, I think it makes you bring your game up, to know that you’re being watched. ... And that’s OK, too. You should have enough pride and confidence in yourself.”
In today’s NFL, fans devour every nugget of information.
“Obviously now the media is watching over everything,” Carpenter said. “That’s a good thing for sports.”
In 2014, the Bills lost 138 man-games to injury, which was the fourth fewest in the league. After that year, Carpenter and his staff won the Pro Football Athletic Trainers Society award for training staff of the year.
If that goes to show anything, it’s that predicting when injuries will occur is impossible.
“Our job is to do the best we can by taping and bracing, but that really isn’t going to stop most injuries,” Carpenter said. “It might lessen the severity of an injury. I think that’s important.
“But our real main job is to take care of that injured athlete from the moment it happens and to get them back as safely and as quickly as possible.”