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Examining the IR: Foot, ankle injuries lead to questions about shoes

Ryan Clady's 2013 season lasted less than two games. (USATSI)

At the quarter pole of the NFL season, it's time to track trends. First stop: An alarming number of players are on injured reserve and part of the reason could be the shoes players choose to wear.

On Oct. 1, 2012, there were 99 players on IR.

On Sept. 28, before Week 4 started this season, there were 171.

Some players are designated for early return under the league's new guideline allowing clubs to put one player on early return IR. But keep in mind there were only 99 players on IR -- slightly less than two full teams worth -- last season, and almost double that so far this season. The numbers are a real concern.

We will add to that 171 after Week 4 ends after the Monday game and Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork goes to the IR with a torn Achilles'. Of 32 teams, 26 have more players on IR now than they did on Oct. 1, 2012. The trend is disturbing, and leads to questions. Since we don't really know if if it's a lack of team conditioning in the spring or the way teams practice now, what kinds of injuries are we talking about?

Concussions? Concern over long-term effects will drive more people to IR, but not -- at this point -- at a higher rate than 2012.

Season-ending knee injuries? There are always plenty, but those, too, are on a relatively normal pace.

But when I look at foot and ankle injuries this season, there are a significant number of premiere offensive tackles sidelined or already on injured reserve because of injuries to the foot area.

Ryan Clady is on IR and Duane Brown, Sam Baker and Sebastian Volmer are all experiencing foot and ankle problems. Take a look at the Wilfork injury this week, and it raises the level of concern.

Last Friday's medical report had 55 players with some form of a foot injury, including turf toe, Lisfranc, Achilles, ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis, metatarsal stress fractures or those simply labeled "foot injury." There are 26 bones in the foot with many ligaments and lots can go wrong.

In talking with several foot and ankle specialists over the past week, they see the rise of foot and ankle injuries as alarming. The two potential culprits that kept surfacing from my conversations: shoes players wear and field surface.

One foot specialist in North Carolina felt strongly that the problems are in the shoes. Too many players wearing what he called soft-bottom cleats that feel comfortable and light, but do not provide structure and support players need. This, on top of these big men simply putting too much pressure and torque on their feet during games.

Another former NFL team doctor said he suspects the new synthetic field surfaces create too much traction, especially when players wear traditional screw-in spikes to dig in deeper on those fields.

My guess is it's a combination of the shoes and the surface. And something has to be done or we're going to see many more players headed to IR before this season is over.

Not only is it costing teams top players, it's costing teams ... period.

Do the math on 171 players on injured reserve. Say the average salary is $500,000, which is a modest number. Some young players on IR may have a split contract and had a significant reduction in pay because of an IR stint. OK, but then add a guy like Ryan Clady who went to IR after signing a deal that paid a $10 million roster bonus, a $3 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million salary in 2013 for a total of $14.5 million. So that $500K average is probably low. At any rate, NFL owners are paying out anywhere from $85 million to $150 million to players on IR right now, and that number is sure to double as the season wears on.

A few weeks ago, Hall of Fame tackle Jonathan Ogden told me about his career coming to an end because of a toe injury. His warning to all the tackles hobbled by foot and ankle injuries: Get extra rest or their careers will end too soon.

Solid advice, but I also think it's time for the clubs to do more research on football shoes and consider managing what players wear. Clearly, more work has to be done about all injuries. But at the rate players are heading to IR tells me they don't have a lot of time get it done.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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