(The final of a series examining the 2012 season.)
**Yes indeed, injuries are a part of football, but for the Steelers of late, injuries have been a significant part. Too significant. As is often said, you can look it up.
The 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers finished with an 8-8 record and no spot in the playoffs. Those are facts, and so are these:
Troy Polamalu missed nine games. Rashard Mendenhall missed seven. Marcus Gilbert missed 11. Mike Adams missed six. Ben Roethlisberger missed three, as did Antonio Brown. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley were on the field together for only nine games. David Johnson went on the injured reserve list before the start of the regular season, and No. 1 pick David DeCastro didn't come off that list until the regular season was 13 games old.
If 2012 had been an aberration, if the Steelers simply had experienced one season that was ruined by a never-ending series of injuries … but just a bit of superficial research points more toward a trend.
In 2011, Aaron Smith missed 12 games and landed on injured reserve. Daniel Sepulveda missed nine and ended up there as well. Emmanuel Sanders missed five games, Jason Worilds missed four, Casey Hampton and Jerricho Cotchery each missed three, Maurkice Pouncey and Brett Keisel each missed two.
"I do think it's something that comes in cycles," said Steelers President Art Rooney II about injuries. "I remember sitting there a few years ago and looking at the Colts, who had like 15 guys on injured reserve, and I was thinking, 'I'm glad that's not us.'
"It does happen sort of in cycles, and hopefully we're getting through this cycle. But having said that I don't think we can just sit here and believe we'll come to the end of the cycle. We have to look at everything we're doing, and we will look at everything we're doing, from the training and conditioning side of things, from a practice side of things and see if there are things we can do to get better."
Getting better in that respect would do nothing but help the offensive line, a unit that has been in a state of almost constant upheaval for three straight seasons. Starting with the 2010 NFL Draft, the Steelers have spent two first-round picks and two second-round picks in an effort to fortify their offensive line, but the accompanying injuries seem to have left them in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back mode over the same duration.
It is no coincidence that many of the teams making the playoffs and then advancing through them enjoy stability along their offensive lines. But in 2010, injuries forced the Steelers to employ six different five-man starting combinations, with three of those coming in the first three weeks of the regular season. That Steelers team won the eighth AFC Championship in franchise history, but there were instances during Super Bowl XLV where the play of the offensive line was a liability in what turned into a loss to the Green Bay Packers.
In 2011, the Steelers started nine different five-man offensive line combinations, and in 2012, it was seven different combinations. Late last summer as the Steelers were preparing for another training camp on the campus of Saint Vincent College, there was some optimism that their offensive line would include (from left to right) Adams, newly-converted Willie Colon, Pouncey, DeCastro, and Gilbert. Not once were they ever all healthy enough to make that a reality.
"I think what we have to look at as a league is where we are with some of the rules regarding conditioning and how often players can be in the building and what they can do here," said Rooney about how the Collective Bargaining Agreement now governs some of those issues. "I would like to see us have some of that loosened up a little bit, but that's not something completely in our control. The other thing we have to do is make our players aware that under the rules that we're all operating under now, it's more on them to make sure they're performing the offseason conditioning, because we only have access to them for nine weeks. It is incumbent on the individual players to be aware of that, and I think they are."
One of the issues to be examined by the Steelers this offseason is whether the injuries being sustained by many of their key players are more in the bad luck category or more about a lapse in conditioning, or in many cases, a misdirected emphasis on how players prepare themselves for an NFL season. Are some players too big – and not necessarily fat – for their frames?
"The trainers will tell you that conditioning-related injuries are muscle pulls and strains and those kinds of things," said Rooney. "Concussions or breaking bones, conditioning is not going to help that stuff. We do have to look at the kinds of things where conditioning could make a difference.
"Conditioning is something that's always evolving, people are always coming up with new ideas on how to train, and so we'll look at all of that."