The San Francisco 49ers’ brutal injury look reared its ugly head once again. The team announced offensive lineman Justin Skule (ACL) and safety Tavarius Moore (Achilles) suffered season-ending injuries during Monday’s OTAs.
Skule and Moore are valuable depth pieces that have filled in admirably over the past two seasons. Their loss means the Niners will either need some of their other young players to step up, or head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch could look outside the building.
San Francisco’s misfortune has carried over from last year.
Injuries derailed any hopes of a return trip to the Super Bowl in 2020. Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Richard Sherman and starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo all suffered significant injuries within the first two weeks of the season, and the Niners never recovered.
The data shows the 49ers were far-and-away the leaders when it comes to adjusted games lost in 2020. San Francisco’s players missed 161.6 games to injuries, plus five more related to COVID-19. Here are the five teams with the highest adjust games lost for the 2020 campaign:
Unsurprisingly, none of the five teams made it to the playoffs. The Niners’ total adjusted games lost is the second-most over the past 20 NFL seasons. Only the 2016 Chicago Bears had a higher total than San Francisco, with 171.6. The Bears went 3-13 that year.
This has been a recurring theme for the 49ers, who have been one of the most-snake bitten teams since the 2014 NFL season. As The Athletic’s David Lombardi (via Football Outsiders) points out on Twitter, San Francisco is second in adjusted games lost to injury over the past seven years.
Football Outsiders adjusted games lost formula — which weights injuries to starters along with advanced metrics — ranks 49ers as the second-most injured NFL team since Levi's Stadium opened in 2014.— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) June 8, 2021
Average rank of #26.7 per season (doesn't yet include Wilson, Moore and Skule): pic.twitter.com/3Fz97SuvkQ
Looking at the chart, it’s painfully obvious how much injuries can impact a team’s season. Since 2014, the teams with the most adjusted game lost (WFT, 49ers, Chargers, Dolphins and Jets) have a combined record of 229-330-1
Here are the adjusted games lost for every Super Bowl winner since 2014:
For comparison's sake, San Francisco’s lowest adjusted games lost total over the past seven seasons was 23 in 2017. Even when the Niners made it to the Super Bowl in 2019, they had the sixth-most adjusted games lost.
There have been injury issues since the 49ers moved into their new headquarters at Levi’s Stadium. Then head coach Jim Harbaugh pulled his team off the field in 2014 during a joint preseason practice with the Chargers due to the less than optimal conditions.
Tim Kawakami — who is now with The Athletic — wrote about the field issues following the 2014 season while he was with The Mercury News.
The 49ers didn’t get the grass field right the first time–and pretended it was OK when it was notably not OK in the weeks before the first preseason games–and it’s December now, they’ve had FIVE different fields put down, and it’s still not all the way right.
Harbaugh made a point to show the world that it wasn’t right when he pulled the team off the Levi’s field during its first practice there (they usually practice on their old fields next to the team HQ) when players were slipping and chunks of turf were coming up.
They’ve played six regular-season games there. They’ve had a few soccer games, a few college games and a few high school games. And it’s still not right, which makes you wonder: It’s a $1.3B stadium, what else did they get wrong that we don’t yet know about?
Despite being one of the favorites in 2014, the Niners sputtered to an 8-8 record. Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks and Jimmie Ward all missed multiple games in what would be Harbaugh’s final season with the team.
Under general manager Trent Baalke, San Francisco’s roster was so bad during the 2015 and 2016 campaigns that injuries had a minimal effect on its already shoddy performance.
Shanahan and Lynch took over in 2017 and have dealt with the same issues that plagued their predecessor. Along with Skule and Moore, players like Jalen Hurd and Jerick McKinnon also got hurt during practice and missed significant time.
The 49ers had 17 players spend time on the IR during the 2018 campaign and responded by firing head athletic trainer Jeff Ferguson. Dustin Little replaced him, but the results have been the same.
Could the extra travel be an issue given San Francisco’s geographical location?
The Niners, Dolphins and Chargers have been among the teams who have to travel the most miles in every NFL season since 2017 and are among the five teams with the most adjusted games lost on Football Outsiders’ list.
Here is where each team has ranked in miles traveled each year since 2017.
San Francisco: 2017 (No. 8), 2018 (No. 8), 2019 (No. 5), 2020 (No. 6).
Miami: 2017 (No. 4), 2018 (No. 7), 2019 (No. 13), 2020 (No. 4).
L.A.: 2017 (No. 5), 2018 (No. 3), 2019 (No. 3), 2020 (No. 2).
But that theory gets debunked when looking at how many miles two of the 49ers’ NFC West rivals — the Seahawks and Rams — travel each season, given they have been two of the healthiest clubs since 2014.
Here is where they ranked in total miles over the past four seasons.
LAR: 2017 (No. 3), 2018 (No. 6), 2019 (No. 2), 2020 (No. 3).
Seattle: 2017 (No. 6), 2018 (No. 2), 2019 (No. 4), 2020 (No. 1).
Since 2014, the three years San Francisco has had its most adjusted games lost have been 2018, 2019 and 2020.
I caught up with Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT of 3cbperformance.com, to get his opinion on some possible reasons why the Niners have been dealing with such bad injury luck in recent history.
Q: What kind of an impact could the practice/playing field in Santa Clara have on player injuries?
Dr. Brar: Typically, the only thing that I found in terms of playing surface is that when it comes to injuries like ACL, is that the drier the surface, the higher the risk of ACL injury. Because what happens in typical ACL injuries is that your foot gets caught, and your knee drops inwards. So if it’s a dry surface, your foot is more likely to get caught versus if it’s a slicker surface. The data shows rainy areas have a lesser propensity for ACL injuries for that reason.
Q: What are some of the factors that impact why the Niners continue to be more hard-hit by injuries over the past few seasons?
Dr. Brar: You’re looking at a rather large sample size, so there are some factors I would look for. You’re looking at what the biggest risk is. Which for me, is, are the jumps in intensity too high?
Because we already know the data shows every time you increase the intensity, whether it’s from OTAs to mandatory minicamp, to actual camp into preseason and then into the season, there’s an increase in injuries. You’ll always hear this slew of injuries that comes out, whether it’s ACL or whatever it might be.
So, the biggest thing I’m looking at if I see that trend line is maybe the training here is too high in terms of jumps in intensity. That’s the first thing that my mind goes to. If I were an employee, I would look at what is the training program looks like in combination with the practice.
You have to look at the training load as well. Are you increasing training too quickly? Which increases the risk for any soft tissue injury. Are you incorporating neuromuscular training? Neuromuscular means, essentially it’s how the nerves activate the muscles. So I would look at including that into their training if they’re not already.
Shanahan and Lynch acknowledged that they tweaked their draft strategy this year to focus more on prospects who have shown the ability to be durable during their collegiate careers, a far cry from the slew of injured prospects we saw Baalke select during his tenure.
Losing Skule and Moore certainly hurts San Francisco’s depth for the 2021 season, but it won’t kill any optimism about a championship run. Hopefully, the 49ers can keep their core players healthy and reverse their injury luck in 2021.