Is NFL experiencing injury epidemic?

Aaron Rodgers

The Green Bay Packers' third-team quarterback takes a snap from the fourth-string center and throws to the team's No. 4 receiver. This is not a preseason game, but instead a key November matchup with playoff implications, one the Packers will lose to the Eagles.

The Seattle Seahawks open a game with their left guard playing left tackle, a third-string lineman starting at right tackle and a backup at left guard. Quarterback Russell Wilson, one of the game's most elusive players, is sacked seven times as the Seahawks manage 14 points in a slim victory over the St. Louis Rams.

The Chicago Bears finish a game with quarterback Jay Cutler and three Pro Bowl defensive players sidelined by injury. The Washington Redskins' previously anemic offense slices through the Bears' backups for nearly 500 yards in a 45-41 victory.

Ghastly personnel tales have peppered the NFL's landscape this season, spawning reactions ranging from dark humor to panic to disgust. So let there be no doubt: You are not alone if you think injuries are up and quality of play is down in 2013.

"We're seeing a lot of players hurt," analyst Ron Jaworski said recently on ESPN Radio. "You're seeing a lot of new players going out on the field, not ready to play, not in condition to play. And you're seeing bad football and a lot of injuries right now."

While not inaccurate, that sentiment does not complete the story. Injury totals have in fact risen this season, albeit less dramatically than it might seem, and there have been some glaring instances of poor play as a result. But an analysis of data and interviews with NFL observers suggests the underlying issue rests not with raw injury totals but with who is getting hurt and the state of depth behind them.

"I'm not sure injuries are the issue as a blanket statement," said longtime NFL general manager Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst. "But player development is the one area we have fallen very far behind where we once were. I don't think there is any question we've gone backward there. It doesn't manifest itself on the field until you're playing your third offensive tackle, or your No. 3 quarterback has to play. And there, in those cases, we've seen it."

If anything, the 2013 season has brought to critical mass an issue that has accelerated with the reduction of offseason training periods. The NFL might not have an injury problem as much as it has a crisis of depth, especially at -- but not limited to -- the quarterback position.

Let's take a closer look at what has happened and conclude with some suggestions for reversing the trend.

The state of NFL health

There is no golden tool for quantitatively measuring injuries, but we can take several points of data to develop a credible snapshot. The chart above shows that after Week 12, there were 265 players on injured reserve, a figure that includes those who will be waived when injury settlements conclude.

When you compare that total with what we've seen after 12 weeks in previous seasons, you see a modest increase. (Data courtesy of ESPN's Roster Management System.)

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