How Many QB Hits Are Too Many? Assessing Joe Burrow's Season-Ending Injury

by Hollywood Sports

When Joe Burrow suffered his season-ending in Week 11 of the NFL season with a gruesome leg injury, many observers thought that this outcome was inevitable given the punishment the rookie was consistently facing. 

In hindsight, the statistics are staggering regarding how the Cincinnati Bengals treated their franchise quarterback. Burrow endured his injury in the third quarter against a Washington team with one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. He had already attempted 34 passes at that point of the game, while being on track to approach 50 throws in the game. These efforts were all for a team that was 2-6-1 at the time, and far out of the AFC playoff race. 

Burrow’s rookie season ended with him attempting 404 passes in his 8 1/2 games played. But it is not just his pass attempts that is the concern. Burrow was playing behind a suspect offensive line that made a season-ending injury a significant risk. Burrow was sacked 32 times. However, sacks are an insufficient measurement of the damage he was absorbing. Burrow also took 53 hits in the pocket. When then adding the 34 rushing attempts he made where he was tackled, the result is that Burrow had been subject to 125 significant hits from opposing defenders in just over half a season. Is approaching 250 hits a sustainable number for a quarterback to stay healthy?

There was intriguing research done on the toll of high-usage in bell-cow running backs in the early 2000s. Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders dubbed the phrase “the Curse of 370” when detailing the tendency for running backs who had 370 touches from rushing attempts and receptions had on the future productivity (https://www.footballoutsiders.com/stat-analysis/2004/ricky-williams-retires). 

I find it surprising that similar research has not been undertaken to attempt to identify if there is a correlation between hits on the quarterback and injury. To be fair, I may be unaware of such research. Such work is not being addressed in the higher-profile pieces I have read arguing for passing the football in seemingly every instance despite the ancillary risk this strategy has in putting the quarterback’s health at risk. In researching this article, I did come across a promising fantasy football site that does attempt to measure this data: https://sportsinjurypredictor.com. 

However, I would be interested in research that attempted to determine that theoretical magic number regarding the number of hits a quarterback endures before the risk of injury seems to significantly rise. Jamey Eisenberg made some conclusions regarding running backs for his CBS Fantasy Football work in 2014 that illuminates how similar work could be undertaken regarding hits on the quarterback: 

“We went back and looked at the past 10 years for running backs who had 400 touches in a season, including the playoffs, and found 27 occasions where it happened for 17 different running backs. Of those 27 times, only five -- Edgerrin James (2004), LaDainian Tomlinson (2005), James again (2005), Adrian Peterson (2009) and Ray Rice (2011) -- produced an increase in Fantasy points the following season, and you can see all the data in our chart below. 

The 22 other examples where a running back hit 400 touches over that span showed varying results -- all negative. Two running backs -- Tiki Barber and Ricky Williams -- retired following consecutive seasons with 400 touches. And nine times a running back suffered an injury -- Arian Foster (2013), Peterson (2013), Michael Turner (2009), Steven Jackson (2007), Larry Johnson (2007), Shaun Alexander (2006), Clinton Portis (2006), Curtis Martin (2005) and Jamal Lewis (2004) -- that caused him to miss games following a 400-touch campaign. Some of those injuries could be attributed to the heavy workload the year before.” (https://www.cbssports.com/fantasy/football/news/offseason-extra-the-year-after-400-plus-touches/)

Identifying a theoretical number of hits absorbed where the risks of injury significantly increased for a quarterback would be fascinating. It would certainly better inform the debates regarding offensive run versus pass strategy. And this level of scholarship might have compelled the Bengals to run the ball a bit more to save their star rookie quarterback from sustaining an injury that may put his 2021-22 season into jeopardy. 

Best of luck for us — Frank.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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