One of the most prevalent issues for the Indianapolis Colts in 2010 was the unprecedented number of injuries the team’s players incurred at almost every position on the team. The Colts were not alone — the World Champion Green Bay Packers were the second most injured team in the league. The frequency and severity of injuries has become one of the most discussed topics in all of football for players, owners, the NFL Competition Committee, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
In 2005, Major League Baseball had to address an unrelated matter that could have some correlation with the number of injuries some NFL teams have experienced over the last few years. Players like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Conseco, Alex Rodriguez and others were all either questioned or openly discussed the use of performance enhancing drugs like steroids. The issue was so important that Congress saw fit to have hearings regarding the use of illegal performance enhancers in professional sports.
Shortly after Congress expressed open concerns with the use of steroids in professional sports, the NFL instituted a crack down of its own, increasing the penalties for use and the frequency of tests to catch violators of their substance abuse policies. As with any change in policy, words on paper or an agreement reached between players and the NFL are meaningless unless those words and the agreement is enforced. It took the league approximately one year to start getting some results by instituting penalties, suspensions, and making good on their word to be diligent with the use of steroids.
Consider the following players who have either all used, been suspected of using, or have been suspended for the use of steroids or other performance enhancers — or for using diuretics that mask the use of such drugs. It is worthwhile to consider the physical impact that occurred after the NFL crackdown started taking place, both in terms of increased injuries and decreased on-field performance.
1) LB Shawne Merriman
Merriman took the league by storm in his rookie season (2005) by tallying 57 tackles, 10 sacks, and 4 passes defended. His penchant for sacks and hard hitting quickly earned him the nickname “lights out,” which included its own dance that typically irritated opponents because Merriman would use it to taunt opposing players. In his sophomore season, he produced 63 tackles, 17 sacks, 8 passes defended, an interception, and 4 forced fumbles in only 12 games. He missed the third quarter of the season due to his suspension for testing positive for steroid use. In his third season, Merriman had 68 tackles, 12.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. All three years Merriman earned Pro Bowl berths.
What followed may be one of the biggest fall-offs in production for a three-time Pro Bowler in the history of the NFL. In 2008, Merriman played in only one game before suffering a season ending knee injury. He returned in 2009 and managed to stay mostly healthy but was only able to produce 36 tackles and 4 sacks on the season. Last year, “Lights Out” had the power turned off on him in San Diego as he was incapable of staying healthy through the first five weeks of the season, competing in three of the first five games before the Chargers cut him. The Bills picked him up only to have a nagging Achilles injury keep him from starting a single game for one of the worst franchises in the NFL.
2) RB Deuce McAllister
Although McAllister never reached the acclaim Merriman did, a correlation exists between suspected steroid use and the quick end of his career. In 2006, McAllister rushed for 1,057 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 30 passes for 198 additional yards. This is the last time McAllister would be relevant in the National Football League. In 2007, Deuce tore his ACL in the Saints Week 3 match-up with the Tennessee Titans and would be placed on the injured reserve. In 2008, the year McAllister tested positive for the use of Bumetanide — a diuretic substance sometimes used for weight loss — he ran for 418 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns, and added 128 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown on 18 receptions. He never played another NFL game and announced his retirement plans during the divisional round of the Saints 2010 playoff run.
The reason McAllister is included among those suspected of steroid use is that Bumetanide is a substance that thins out urine and makes it very difficult, or sometimes impossible, to detect the use of drugs like steroids. Anyone caught violating the NFL’s substance abuse policies for diuretics like Bumetanide will be suspected of the use of other performance enhancing drugs, whether or not they actually used them. If Deuce did use steroids prior to his positive Bumetanide test in 2008 and was unable to continue playing in the NFL once the substance was discovered and further use was no longer manageable, his quick fall from one of the league’s best running backs to unable to play and retired is noteworthy.
3) DE Will Smith
Smith is guilty of the same crime as his teammate McAllister, testing positive for the use of Bumetanide. He is different from Merriman and McAllister in that he has managed to stay healthy, even if he used the diuretic to cover-up steroid use. However, his on-field production since he tested positive has been inconsistent. Consider that he tallied 10.5 sacks in 2006, 7 in 2007, only 3 in 2008, 13 in 2009, and 5.5 in 2010. The 2009 production suggests that Smith is completely capable of producing — even after his positive Bumetanide test — but his last three seasons total the sack production of the two seasons prior to his positive test. If Smith did use steroids but stopped after the positive test in 2008, there is some correlation between discontinuing use of the drug and his on-field production.
4) DE Charles Grant
Grant is the third part of the Saints trio of players who were caught for testing positive for using Bumetanide. The story of his career follows more closely to McAllister and Merriman’s fall from recognition. Grant is a former first round draft pick, and was the second-highest paid defensive player in New Orleans when the test results were released. He averaged just over six sacks a year in his first six years in the NFL. He suffered a torn ligament in his left ankle in the off-season leading up to 2008. He still managed to play in eight games that year and produced three sacks. He added 5.5 sacks to his career numbers in 2009, but has not seen the field since. The Dolphins and Bears have taken fliers on Grant only to later cut him. If his choice to use diuretics was based upon his desire to cover-up steroid use, his story would also be noteworthy.
5) DT Pat Williams
The big Vikings Williams was also a part of the slew of NFL players caught for Bumetanide use. What makes him a difficult case for the steroid discussion is that he is 38 years old and a natural decline in production would be expected from anyone as they approach the latter half of their thirties in the NFL. It is noteworthy, though, that prior to the 2008 case, the Minnesota Vikings were known for having the best run defense, and one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. Pat Williams played a big role in that performance.
From 2005-2007, Williams totaled 172 tackles and 4.5 sacks. At no point in his career, while he was an integral part of his team’s defense, did he have fewer than 45 tackles. 2006 marked the first time he managed only 44 tackles. Since Williams tested positive for using diuretics in 2008, he has totaled 44, 44, and 30 tackles, respectively.
6) DT Kevin Williams
The Vikings other Williams was caught for the same diuretic drug. His 2008 season was still very impressive, one of the best of his career, where he totaled 60 tackles and 8.5 sacks. His production has since dropped — 2009 – 30 tackles and 6 sacks, 2010 – 39 tackles and 1 sack. Kevin Williams is 30 years old and could be seeing some of his production decline due to his age but the two-year drop in production after his positive test to tackle and sack totals only four and one, respectively, better than the Colts Fili Moala seems rather steep.
7) S Bob Sanders
Sanders inclusion in this list is based upon nothing more than speculation and hopes to encourage discussion, along with some connection to the Colts and the NFL’s crack down on substance abuse. It is important to note that Sanders has not tested positive for any banned substance in his career.
Sanders is included in this story for two primary purposes. First, his injury history and on-field performance following the NFL’s substance abuse testing changes, along with his fall from consideration as one of the league’s top safeties coincides in an eerily similar way to Shawne Merriman. Second, because the types of injuries Sanders has suffered coincides with the kinds of injuries previous steroid users typically suffer from.
Sanders was arguably the league’s best safety in 2006 and 2007 — when he was healthy. Many Colts fans will attribute Sanders with having a big impact on the team’s ability to win Super Bowl XLI. Additionally, he was voted the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, after he competed in 15 regular season games. Since that time, Sanders has only participated in 9 of 48 games during the 2008-2010 seasons. Six of those nine games were in 2008.
The injuries he suffered during those three seasons? One high ankle sprain, a knee injury — reportedly due to swelling from an injury he suffered in his rookie year (2004), and two biceps tears. Similar to Merriman, following the 2007 season, the nagging injuries have kept Sanders from having an impact on the field. He is currently negotiating with the Colts to lower his salary in order to stay with the team.
One thing should be understood about the players on this list. First, it was not compiled to accuse all who are on the list of taking steroids. Only Shawne Merriman actually failed a test due to the presence of steroids. Second, the members of this list are included to consider the drop-off in production for numerous players, on different teams, playing different positions that coincide with the NFL’s evolving steroid and substance abuse policies. Third, the second part of this series will discuss the ramifications of steroid use on the sport and for the fans of all NFL football teams, regardless of whether one or all seven of the players in this story actually used steroids at any point in their professional playing careers.