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The risky need for lots of reps

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Carlos Hyde hit career bests this year but ended up injured again.

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Carlos Hyde had a breakthrough year, with 1,151 all-purpose yards and 9 touchdowns as the only reliable offense on a very bad team. His pounding, north/south running style was everything Chip Kelly had sought (but didn’t get) in Philadelphia when he signed DeMarco Murray as a free agent.

But Hyde’s year ended early for the third year in a row as a torn MCL knocked him out of game 15. (Forget the argument that he had “only” 988 running yards in 13 games. The 1,000 yard milestone is no more significant than your car’s odometer rolling over at 100,000 miles. Buying a clunker with 99, 988 miles is no better of a deal.)

There’s a high-risk dilemma that every NFL player faces. Assuming they’re in a spot to play at all, they need lots of reps to figure out the pro game, adjust to the speed and talent of the world’s best players, and learn to mesh with their teammates.

Every rep brings needed experience, but also risks a career-ending injury. Some players never get on the field at all, or never get enough snaps to even know if they could have made it. Others, especially skill players, need a steady stream to get their timing down, and just won’t be as good until they do. If they ever do. So you want to be on the field.

But if you get worn out, especially as a rookie playing a much longer season against tougher guys than you’ve ever faced, your productivity will drop and your risk of injury can skyrocket.

Worst of all, a player has little control over any of this, unless he takes himself out of the game (and risks a rep as soft or injury-prone). He’s at the mercy of his coaches’ judgment. And on a bad team with 17 players on the IR list and a head coach and GM fighting for their jobs, you know they’re going to be tempted to squeeze everything they can out of their remaining talent.

Chip Kelly has a particular philosophy about all this. He’s a strong believer in making players practice, practice, practice until everything is automatic. The reason his practices are so fast is less about tempo than just getting more reps for everybody. Years ago, Chip put it this way at a coaching clinic:

My old high school coach told me a long time ago that ‘If your head is moving, your feet are not.’ That means if you are thinking about what to do, you are not doing it as fast.

He echoed that concept Wednesday when discussing Carlos Hyde’s success. A reporter asked him if Hyde seemed to be hitting the hole more decisively. The coach said he never though the RB was indecisive, but when pressed, he added:

I just think that’s a byproduct of experience. It doesn’t matter who you are. The longer he gets to play and more comfortable, more reps he gets doing the same thing, you could be a golfer, the more you’re out on the practice range and you’re swinging, you groove your swing. So, I just think he’s gotten better over time. A very talented player. The more reps he gets at it, the more he sees it, the more comfortable he feels with it.

It’s easy to dismiss the significance of the many injuries this team has had, because every NFL team has a lot of injuries. However, on a talent-thin roster with lots of new and marginal players, the effects of missed games are amplified.

Football is the most team-oriented pro sport; there are very few situations where a one-on-one battle is decisive, and coordination between the players is crucial. An RB with a constantly shifting front line is hard pressed to get that split second timing to hit holes properly. Behind a more typically healthy line, Hyde would have had much better numbers; on Dallas, maybe 1,500 yards.

This brings us to DeForest Buckner, the team’s first round pick. With injuries to the entire rest of the front line and some of their backups, he rarely misses a snap — at all. Buckner has played the most snaps of any defensive lineman in the NFL, 18 more than 2nd place Olivier Vernon and 40 more than Denver’s Jared Crick, who’s third. That’s even more amazing since he missed a game.

So far, the value of the extra experience has outweighed the injury risk. Buckner had his best game in week 13 against the Jets, nominated for Rookie of the Week after notching 11 tackles and 2 sacks. He’s cooled off a bit since then, with 2 tackles and a sack against the Rams Saturday, but he has already matched or surpassed 2 of his lofty preseason goals — 70 tackles and 6 sacks — with a game left. Given Joey Bosa’s season, his third goal (Defensive Rookie of the Year) might be out of reach though.

It’s easy to worry about Buckner getting injured at the end of a lost season — he was limited in practice last Wednesday with a hip issue — but Chip Kelly recruited him and coached him for a year at Oregon, so he has a better sense of his lineman’s stamina than most coaches would.

There’s never an easy answer to the tension between experience and risk. At the end of the year you can look back in hindsight and second guess. Hyde’s MCL tear shouldn’t keep him off the field for more than 6 weeks, and it’s hard to dispute that this year allowed him to develop the potential everyone knew he had. If Buckner rips up his knee next week, Chip will be easily second guessed, but if not, the rookie’s development may be one of the few bright spots in a brutal year.