NFL's bad wheel: Hamstrings leave star players in quicksand

PITTSBURGH -- Call it the Meadowlands rite of passage: Star New York Giants playmaker arrives for his first training camp, hurts a hamstring in a practice and wallows in self-doubt.

Odell Beckham Jr., a pull-up artist from four years ago, used sarcasm to ease Saquon Barkley's strain.

"Feel for him? Yeah, I mean, I don't know how you pull your hamstring as a rookie -- that's unreal," Beckham said.

Barkley leads a growing list of players falling victim to the NFL's hamstring epidemic. He's one of nearly 10 Giants to suffer a strain or a tweak or whatever arbitrary euphemism head coaches like to use for the injury.

It has just three grades -- simple pull, partial tear and complete tear -- yet all of them are nearly impossible to tough out.

Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon finally showed up for the preseason, then found his way back out thanks to the pesky muscle. The New England Patriots cut two of their receivers, Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt, at least partially because of the injury.

A 2011 study for the U.S. National Library of Medicine conducted by several doctors, including Steelers team physician Dr. Jim Bradley, cited an average of 176 hamstring injuries per NFL season over a 10-year period. Players missed an average of 2.6 games, with defensive backs and wide receivers -- think speed guys -- making up nearly half of the injury total.

Speed led Barkley to the training room, wondering how he could have prevented his.

"I thought I was doing all of those things right, but it kind of just showed me that even when you think you’re doing enough, you got to find a way to do more," said Barkley, who returned to Giants practices Aug. 21 after a short absence.

It's not so simple.

ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell says the NFL medical community has intensely studied the injury that has no clear-cut blueprint. There are certain trends, she says. Rookies transitioning from a shorter college season and unique pre-draft schedule might be susceptible. The injury lurks in the preseason as veterans come off summer breaks and readapt to an NFL practice.

But not all cases are the same, she adds, and even a minor flare-up can worsen if a player pushes too early. Teams have copious data but can't prevent these.

"Everybody’s aware this is a problem, and nobody out there has a magic formula," Bell said. "Once it happens, the whole goal is not to have a setback. The No. 1 risk factor for a hamstring injury is a previous hamstring injury."

That might not stop a head coach from giving a hamstrung player the stink eye after too long of an absence. They covet availability.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the only way to manage the hamstring issue is to come to camp prepared.

"Physical condition, preseason, anything else is obvious when you get in this environment -- reaction, movement associated with football and the amount of work that we do, that's part of it," Tomlin said. "The best thing to do is to minimize the impact on the collective group by the collective group coming in in great shape."

And that's what bugs Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, who's a workhorse inside and outside the team facility. He came to camp in excellent shape, then lost three weeks of practice time with one long, wrong stride on the grass.

Watt is back now, thanks to a pool workout that lessened leg resistance. But he is still confused by what happened because he had no real evidence to show his hamstring would tighten, he said.

"Once you feel great, you have to pull back the reins. It’s not going to be 100 percent," Watt said. "I’m a guy who just wants to push things."

Steelers safety Morgan Burnett, who also missed time with the injury, believes the issue is "something that comes along with the game" because of today's explosive NFL athlete.

That doesn't make it any easier to cope.

"You go into the year with high hopes and then you're just sort of benched for a few weeks even though your body feels fine for the most part," said Steelers cornerback Artie Burns, who struggled with hamstring issues his rookie year. "It's all about not triggering it again and making it worse."

Hamstrings have always been an issue in NFL locker rooms, but perhaps players are simply held out more often now. A player at 75 percent health might be more of a deterrent to today's caliber of NFL team than a few decades ago, Bell pointed out.

Just because hamstrings usually nag more than devastate doesn't mean they can't deeply affect your top fantasy player.

"A lot of soft-tissue injuries don’t get the proper respect -- like, 'Push through it,'" Bell said. "It’s not a pain tolerance thing."

Jordan Ranaan contributed to this story.