When injuries began to accumulate for the Bills relatively early last season team co-captain George Wilson dismissed them as an excuse for a drop off in performance. He said the team could not be defined by one player and that it takes 11 men on the field to get the job done. What Wilson and the Bills did not foresee however, was just how many of those men would wind up on injured reserve. At the close of the 2011 campaign the total of season-ending injuries unfortunately became a big part of what defined them.
"It didn't kind of crop up. It jumped out at us," said Bills GM Buddy Nix of the number of injuries the team sustained. "We probably had the most of anybody in the league. One of the reasons it hit us as hard as it did is we didn't have the experienced depth and then it was who got injured for us. It was our main guys."
Buffalo's best offensive lineman in Eric Wood (torn ACL) and best defensive lineman in Kyle Williams (Achilles) were both lost for the year between Weeks 8 and 10. In Week 11 the team then lost their league MVP candidate in Fred Jackson for the season. Add in the other 14 players that wound up on injured reserve and there were 17 players out of commission.
Football is a physical sport and injuries are a part of the game. It just seems that the Bills have not had much luck in recent years in avoiding the season-ending injuries. Over the past five seasons Buffalo has had an average of just over 15 players on injured reserve per season (15.4). The high water mark during that stretch was in 2009 when Buffalo had an astounding 20 players on injured reserve.
Nix was as general manager near the close of that season and at the press conference announcing his hiring stated that he intended to look into why the team suffered so many injuries. In the wake of another season with a high figure for players on injured reserve, Buffalobills.com asked Nix if any answers were unearthed as to why the Bills incur the number of serious injuries they do.
"We researched everything we know to research and there's no answer," said Nix. "We had four guys with ACLs that didn't get touched, didn't get hit," said Nix. "Another guy jumping over a pile tears his patellar tendon, Terrence McGee. Fred rolls up on Donald Jones when he's blocking and he's out for the year. Everybody has injuries. We all do. It's just that the ones we lost we didn't get back. Those guys were out for the year."
And as Nix sees it that's where the difference lies between teams that struggle and teams that persevere and reach the postseason.
"I said this last summer. If we could stay away from injuries, if we could not lose guys for the year I thought we could win 10 games. I didn't tell anybody else except my wife," said Nix. "If you lose them and then get them back… Philadelphia… Cincinnati. Some of those teams… the New York Giants. Ahmad Bradshaw, the running back goes down but they got him back. You can take a dip in the middle of the year and get those guys back and come on strong toward the end. But that wasn't the case with us."
Looking at the 12 playoff teams this past season only four of the teams had a double digit total of players on injured reserve [Hou. (12), Pitt. (12), N.E. (11), NYG (10)]. In fact the average number of players on injured reserve for the 12 playoff teams in 2011 was 6.1. Meanwhile six of the eight last place teams in each division had double digit I-R totals. Buffalo led the way with 17. Moreover the average number of players on injured reserve for the eight last place teams was almost double that of the playoff teams (11.9).
Finding a defined explanation for that disparity is impossible. Bills head coach Chan Gailey believes the number of injuries his team sustained contributed to the team's slide out of contention, but he has no idea why there were so many.
"I think every team has experienced depth issues," he said. "I'm not sure there's any team that can avoid it completely. It's just whether you get the injuries or not and whether you can stay healthy during the course of the season with your best players. That's the key for any team I believe is to try to stay as healthy as possible to make it through the season. You can some years and you can't some years."
Some outside observers criticized the Bills for not stocking enough depth on the roster and opposed the release of veteran Geoff Hangartner and the trade of Lee Evans at the beginning of the season. Those critics however, are asking a team to predict that they would need to use four players at center during the season and be forced to put three receivers on injured reserve.
"As far as being second guessed that's going to happen," said Nix. "It doesn't bother me. I don't know what we could've done that would've provided more depth. At the time we made the best decision we could with what we had. I can't think of any specifics where we could've picked up more guys. We're trying to build it with young guys that are good players that are the right kind of people so it stays that way year after year so we'll be competitive."
"It's a game where you get injuries and you have to deal with it at that time," said Gailey. "Everybody has to deal with it. It's just part of it. Guys go down, guys come up. That's the way it is."