As a Saints fan, it’s been frustrating to see many of the team’s better players miss game after game. The narrative has developed that these injuries are simply bad luck, an unpredictable but expected aspect of a violent game. One Saints beat writer has even been dismissive towards fans’ frustrations with players like WO Michael Thomas, who has played only a handful of games over the last three seasons despite what seem like minimal injuries.

Is the “bad luck” narrative true? Or is there a way to predict which teams, and which players, will be particularly beset by injuries that lead to missed games?

Here’s my take on it, especially as it pertains to the Saints. Under Assistant GM Jeff Ireland, who has revitalized the team since his arrival in 2015, the team has drafted players with exceptional athleticism. When crafted and developed, such a player  can win matchups and be a disruptor on defense or a playmaker on offense. On the other hand, athletes as football players tend to be more greyhound than bulldog. When things aren’t just right, they lack the will to grind. That could be why, year after year, the team gets high marks for talent but has trouble keeping its players on the field. Even though they have changed doctors and even hired sports science professionals aiming at improving player health, injuries have stacked up this season.

Furthermore, I think that if you have bulldogs in each positional room, you’re more likely that they’ll put pressure on their peers to answer the bell on game day despite the nicks accrued during the season. I know personally that players have deferred to their agents before deciding if they’d play through injuries.

Of course, this is just my theory. Am I off base? I turned to several friends in the business to get their opinions.

  • Former Bills GM Doug Whaley, who’s now running the entire personnel side for XFL 3.0, said that, most definitely, a team could draft for health and toughness. “I think you can if you bring in players with the majority of the following qualities: Are they junk yard dogs? Is failure not an option? Do they hate to lose more than like to win? Are they dedicated to their craft on, and more importantly off, the field?”
  • Three-time NFL GM Randy Mueller said he thinks “you can develop toughness, but more from a mental standpoint, not physical toughness.”  He’s more philosophical about injuries: “I just think you have to plan on guys getting hurt — every year. It’s not ‘if’ but ‘when.'”
  • Former Bengals executive Jim Lippincott seems to lean more toward my thinking. “One of the true secrets of scouting is predicting the future,” he texted. “When we study players, we most certainly are aware of how many games a player plays in college..(the most important ability is dependability). . . You can put together a draft class and sign free agents with their availability history foremost in your mind. However, money makes players act differently, and who knows who is counseling the player on how to handle injury!!!”
  • Former Bears GM Jerry Angelo is similar to Lippincott in his thinking. “You want every player that you have in your locker room there because they love the game as demonstrated through their work ethic and competitive nature,” Jerry wrote. “They hold each other accountable with a ‘Team First’ attitude. That’s the culture all coaches and organizations want and strive to build. Saying that, each year teams need to fill holes, upgrade their roster and try to accumulate as much talent as they can to compete favorably each season. In doing so, they may compromise certain intangibles, that are integral tenets to winning. The line is so fine, you don’t know when you’ve crossed it. How much risk are you willing to take is the litmus test for every team.”
  • Former Titans executive Blake Beddingfield initially disagreed with my premise “Not sure I can answer that,” he texted. “Even players with a history of playing every game get hurt. I have seen players with bodies and frames that make you say durability, but they are always hurt. (Then,) players like (former Titans OH) Chris Johnson . . . looked frail (but) never got hurt.” After discussing this with him, however, he seemed to agree that some players are just tougher than others, citing Rams DT Aaron Donald’s durability despite his violent playing style, as well as former Oilers offensive lineman Bruce Matthews and his brother, former Browns linebacker Clay Matthews, who played almost four decades between them despite playing tough positions physically. 

The draft, by its very nature, is a very inexact science. Still, I believe tough teams are built on draft day by working to put hardy, tough players at key places in the locker room. They create positive peer pressure, especially as the season wears on and the temptation to take games off gets greater.

Am I crazy? Perhaps. Make sure you’re keeping up with people who are a lot smarter than I am by reading our weekly newsletter, the Friday Wrap. Register for it here.