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49ers believe no simple answer to avoid rash of injuries

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49ers' Nick Bosa carted off

Throughout an injury-plagued 2018 season, the 49ers discussed ways to take measures to limit the number of games lost due to injuries.

Immediately following that season, the club created a new position to oversee both the athletic training and strength and conditioning staffs.

Coach Kyle Shanahan initially referred to the new role as the “head coach of training.”

Ben Peterson was hired from his job as director of sports science with the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL to assume his new duties with the 49ers as head of player health and performance.

Two years, later the health of the team is again a topic.

Injuries were the overriding reason for the team's 6-10 record and last-place finish in the NFC West.

Twenty-six players spent time on the injured reserve list, including such key players as Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, Deebo Samuel, Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman, each of whom missed large portions of the season.

Those players were key contributors in 2019, as the 49ers went 13-3 and advanced to Super Bowl LIV before losing to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“We played long last year being in the Super Bowl and we came back into camp, and everybody's got their own theories as to maybe what happened for the inordinate amount of injuries,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said this week.

Was it just bad luck or was there a reason for so many injuries? That is a question for which there is no easy answer.

 

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Lynch offered a theory for the 49ers' seemingly never-ending cycle of injuries, pointing to a canceled offseason program and a reduced roster further lightened due to players who began camp injured.

“When you lose starters, now all of a sudden, the backups who were special-teams players are now starting and playing special teams," Lynch said. "So everybody's load kind of goes up.

“I just felt like we kind of got behind early and we never caught up. You kept saying, as soon as we start losing guys, we'll start getting guys back with the short-term IR. The problem was, we never stopped losing guys. It was relentless this year, as were a lot of things."

In a normal season, teams are allowed to bring 90 players to training camp. Due to concerns over spreading the coronavirus, NFL rosters were reduced to 80.

And with the number of players who reported to 49ers camp in Santa Clara with preexisting injuries to rehab, Lynch said that the number was closer to 70 available players to practice.

“I think it happened league-wide,” Lynch said. “We got hit by it, not only in the quantity of people that got hurt, but the quality. I looked over in the suite yesterday and three suites over, it looked like an All-Pro team. We need those guys on the field, not in the suite watching the game.”

Shanahan put the number at $81 million of salary cap space this season that went toward injured players.

“I think that's the most in NFL history, that is a big deal,” Shanahan said.

Peterson, head athletic trainer Dustin Little and Dustin Perry, the head of strength and conditioning, are the top individuals in the areas that will receive the most attention.

“I’ll tell you this, we have tremendous faith in the team that we've assembled as with our performance staff and our strength and conditioning staff,” Lynch said. “That remains. We are resolute in our belief in them.

“But we're asking everyone to take a hard look, just as you do with the coaching staff, with the personnel staff. You self-scout and say, 'What can we do better?' We're going to look. We're going to turn every page and every detail as to what we can do better and to improve our processes.”

Shanahan said it is virtually impossible to enact a consistently effective plan to limit injuries. He said he has drawn his own opinions from how much a team practices and how fast it practices in season and in the offseason.

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Some years are good years, he said. But other years, following the exact same formula, are not. There is always an element of randomness and luck -- good and bad.

After all, two of the players who did not miss any playing time this season due to injuries were running back Jerick McKinnon and cornerback Jason Verrett. McKinnon missed the previous two seasons with knee conditions, while a string of injuries throughout Verrett’s career had threatened to bring an early end to his playing days.

 

"Whoever gives you a simple answer on that is just trying to come up with a simple answer,” Shanahan said. “There isn't a simple answer that incorporates everything. Whatever your answer might be in one year, it might not be the next.”