Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Original IR Offenders

Yeah that rule is because of us

One of the biggest milestones in any sport is when the governing body alters or creates a rule specifically to neutralize specific team actions or abilities of a specific player. The NBA widening what used to be called the key into what is now called the paint because George Mikan was so dominant. The NFL Roy Williams horse collar rule. Hack-a-Shaq.

And so it was amusing to me Thursday night while doing research for the Curly R piece on the UFL that I dug up some Redskins history, a story that amused me sixteen years ago and may amuse those that have forgotten or are too young to remember:

The Redskins are responsible for the NFL changing the rules on injured reserve.

Ok maybe not but they sure were a big part of the reason. You see prior to 1993 the injured reserve designation was intended to permit teams to keep an injured player without being forced to release him or otherwise give up a roster spot. If a player went on IR prior to final cuts at the end of training camp, that player would remain with the team but be ineligible to play for the entire season, very much the way the league rule works today.

However if a player were designated for injured reserve during the regular season, that player would be ineligible to play for four weeks. That player would go onto the IR list and his roster spot could be used for another player. The idea was when the injured player came back, a player would have to be released to create a roster spot. A player's stay on IR could be extended, four games at a time, throughout the season.

By the time the league was investigating the Redskins and other teams in 1992 as an extension of the Freeman McNeil court case against Plan B free agency, abuse of injured reserve had become so rampant that it had a nickname: the taxi squad.

Curly R aside: it was a result of that court case that the first round of free agents were awarded five days to sign with the team of their choice. Those four players were Eagles tight end Keith Jackson, Browns receiver Webster Slaughter, Lions tailback DJ Dozier and Patriots defensive end Garin Veris. Of the four, only Keith and Webster signed up and played another down in the NFL.

The taxi squad worked this way: teams would keep their projected taxi squad members through final cuts, leaving the bottom of the roster out on the street. Then immediately after final cuts the team would put its taxi squad members on IR with a listed injury and attempt to sign back the bottom rung players that had been cut.

For the Redskins it was almost always quarterbacks. In the original Joe Gibbs years the Redskins never had a history or tradition of top flight quarterbacks, instead choosing to draft guys in middle rounds and spend craploads of time developing them. Mark Rypien, a 1986 sixth round draft pick, spent the 1986 season on injured reserve with a quote knee unquote and 1987 on IR with a quote back unquote. Cary Conklin, a 1990 fourth round pick, spent 1990 and the Super Bowl 1991 season on IR with a quote knee unquote both years. A dollar for anyone that remembers the Redskins quarterbacks that Super Bowl year.

Answer? Mark Rypien, Jeff Rutledge and Stan Humphries. Throw in the taxi squad quarterback and that is four. One too many, at least the way the rules, now and then, are supposed to work.

Even the following year, in 1992 Next Joe Gibbs QB fourth round pick Chris Hakel spent that season on IR with a quote knee unquote.

So when the salary cap was implemented along with free agency in in 1993, one of the key associated rules changes was to injured reserve. No longer could a team put a player on IR during the season and get him back that season.

Joe Gibbs, the biggest IR offender in the league, saw the writing on the wall after the Redskins playoff loss in 1992, a rising class of prima donna players free to move as they like between teams, the end of old school team cohesion, a new model for evaluating and developing deep draft talent. None of these was consistent with his way of doing things. So he got out.


In researching this piece I also came across another interesting piece related to injured reserve, a 2006 Gregg Easterbrook piece at ESPN, his main argument is that injured reserve is a rule principally designed to get players paid for doing nothing and to keep fans from seeing players they would want to see.

Gregg's big idea is to do away with injured reserve altogether, as well as roster limits, but maintain the salary cap. The idea is that teams could sign as many players as they want, keep them off the field if they are hurt and bring them back when they are ready, all as long as the team stayed under the total salary cap number for that year. So whether that was 40 highly paid players or 371, that being the number of players a team could sign to a roster if every one of them were undrafted free agents and paid the rookie minimum, why should a team be limited to an arbitrary number of players and a season ending IR designation as long as they stay under the cap.

It is a humorous piece if you look at it that way, as humor and not as serious commentary. Because as serious commentary it is incredibly stupid. Roster limits, salary caps and injured reserve designations all work together to ensure a level playing field. Throw in a freaking union in charge of looking after the players' interests and Gregg's idea is ridiculous.

Roster limits force teams with higher cash flow, like the Redskins, to stick to the same number of players as teams that are not cash rich, like the Packers, and also not simply to stock the team with inexpensive throwaway players. Injured reserve rules not only prevent teams from maintaining shadow rosters that could be eligible at some point in a playoff run or if the team tanks to evaluate for the next season, they force teams to evaluate real chances a player can come back from a given injury, which in turn affects how much a team is willing to pay him.

Note in 2007 the Redskins chose not to put Randy Thomas on IR after he tore a triceps in game two against the Eagles, that means the team had to hold that roster spot. Since teams do not get salary relief for putting a player on IR it did not make a difference financially to the team, they could have put Randy on IR and signed another player, so that option was there, in this case the Redskins made a football decision not to sacrifice a roster spot. Because those are the rules.

And anyway the NFL already has a problem with older players, making a higher salary or veteran minimum, being turned out before their time in favor of young players that cost less. Some teams *kaff kaffBengalskaff kaff* are not as concerned with a competitive product and are willing to take chances with less expensive and therefore riskier players. You get what you pay for. As a fan of quality football I can tell you owners need less incentive to turn out older players, not more.

Mark Rypien and the Redskins on the cover of the 3 February 1992 Sports Illustrated, six days after the Redskins trampled the Bills in Super Bowl 26 from here.