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All-star or always sore: How delicate is Seahawks’ C.J. Prosise really?

After missing 12 of a possible 22 games as a pro, Seattle’s second year running back hasn’t shaken the “injury prone” label

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

If you didn’t look too closely you might not realize C.J. Prosise, the Seattle Seahawks running back drafted in the third round in 2016, has played at all in 2017.

In point of fact, Prosise has 20 rushing yards on eight carries in four games, and 87 receiving yards on six additional catches. Dishearteningly (for both) that’s the same rushing average as Thomas Rawls on one-third as many attempts, and good enough for sixth on the team in yards gained through the air (more than wide receivers Amara Darboh or Tanner McEvoy). Prosise has even been on the field for more snaps than occasional starter Eddie Lacy—although nine special teams plays put him over the edge.

But that’s still not much duty, and after spending the offseason rehabilitating from a shoulderblade injury that caused him to miss the final six games of his rookie year (plus both playoff matches), then suffering a groin pull in training camp and an ankle sprain in week 3 that kept him out two more games and then aggravating that same ankle injury in just two snaps Sunday against the New York Giants, the perception that Prosise is “never available” prevails.

And to be honest it’s not far off. To recap, Prosise’s history of aches and pains with the Seahawks goes even deeper, including a hip flexor that kept him out of his rookie minicamp, a hamstring problem that cost him time during 2016’s preseason and a broken hand in his first ever game, which subtracted four more games early in that campaign before the eventual season-ending scapula fracture. Going back to college, Prosise also missed games with a concussion and another high ankle sprain at Notre Dame.

As far as we know, Prosise never had a literal black eye—but added together these frequent ailments give him the unfortunate mark of a constant injury risk. What’s worse, whether due to impatience or confirmation bias by fans or imprecisely communicated timetables from coaches or trainers, Prosise has several times seemed slower than promised to recover from the more minor afflictions and recurring setbacks. Just in the last week I’ve seen remarks on Twitter that Prosise is a “pansy-ass” (something you shouldn’t repeat because it could get you flagged in the Field Gulls comments) or how Seattle should “move on” from him.

To me, the idea of parting ways seems rather extreme for a player who is under club control for two and a half more years on a cheap third-round pay scale and who was startlingly productive when healthy in 2016. In case you forgot (or had a prolonged blink), in a four-game stretch in the middle of his rookie season, Prosise rushed 28 times for 174 yards and caught 15 balls for 178 more. It’s a small sample to be sure, but Prosise’s season-long efficiencies of 19.8 percent rushing DVOA and 55.2 percent receiving DVOA would have placed him easily in the top five for running backs had he qualified.

More importantly, Prosise stepped quickly into all phases of the offense despite his in-season absences and lack of valuable summertime reps. In the Seahawks’ win against the New England Patriots last year Prosise looked comfortable as both an inside and outside runner, as well as running routes and in pass protection. It was a complete performance worthy of a three-down starter, not just a complementary piece, and afforded Seattle the luxury of releasing the previous starter Christine Michael days later. Then Prosise displayed explosiveness with a 76-yard touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles, however he sadly shattered the shoulder blade upon landing at the end of the first half.

But there’s no denying this fragility has overshadowed Prosise’s agility and other positive attributes over the length of his young career. The question is, do Prosise’s medical problems so far signal a genuine lack of durability or toughness, or are they just a run of bad luck?

According to Jake Davidow’s sports injury prediction model, Prosise’s diverse injury history indicated he entered 2017 with a little more than 33 percent chance of getting hurt again this year. I have no idea how accurate this is or what factors inform the model because I can’t find any list of Davidow’s credentials online or any evidence to support his model’s prediction success aside from his own claims, but it’s something. Although a 2 to 1 probability of health is a good bet over a large sample of trials, one bad result is hardly unexpected as any gambler knows. Is the estimated 33 percent likelihood an abnormally high chance for any NFL running back to miss “at least two quarters” (Davidow’s threshold) or even three or more games during a season? I doubt it.

There are lots of reasons why some players may be truly more susceptible to injuries than others, however: The director of the “human performance laboratory” at the University of Wisconsin—Lacrosse told the New York Times in 2008 that, “I think that there is a general quality of ‘heartiness’, or ‘robustness,’ that may influence who gets hurt and who doesn’t.” He also said, “I’ve never seen any systematically collected data, and I’m not even sure what one would measure, but anyone who has worked with athletes for any time at all has seen that there are just some people who are fragile and some who aren’t.”

Obviously, anything from the shape and internal structure of a player’s body to diet and fitness can influence injury probabilities, as well as poor habits of form or movement. Every body is different and for sure these factors can also be interrelated. At 220 pounds, Prosise has a normal weight for a running back but his 6-foot-1 height means he carries it on a proportionally more slender frame and has a higher center of gravity—and a potentially larger “strike zone” and longer limbs for defenders to contact.

Some people are also more genetically predisposed to more brittle bones or produce different amounts of collagen—the main ingredient in tendons and ligaments, affecting probability of soft tissue tears and length of recovery times. In contradictions to criticisms of Prosise’s mental toughness or will to play through his wounds, studies of injury frequencies show that higher pain tolerances make players more likely to get seriously hurt, because those athletes push slight injuries beyond the body’s limits.

And of course, past injuries can leave body parts more vulnerable to reinjury or overcompensation.

In 2007 as a freshman at Oklahoma, DeMarco Murray dislocated his kneecap. A year later he tore a hamstring, then bothered the same hamstring as a pro in 2011. Later in 2011 he broke an ankle, missing three games. He since sprained his foot, broke a hand, sprained his MCL and continues to suffer hamstring problems.

Darren McFadden has had concussions, repeat episodes of turf toe, torn the meniscus in his knee, broke his orbital bone around his eye, sprained his shoulder, sprained his elbow, foot, tore hamstrings multiple times. DeAngelo Williams sprained his knee twice in college, had high ankle sprains in two of his first three pro seasons, missed 10 games with a sprained foot in 2010, and had foot sprains and thigh tears more recently. Brandon Jacobs lost five games to knee and hamstring pains in 2007, then lost two more games to a broken wrist in 2006 and went on season-ending injured reserve in 2009 after another knee surgery.

Reggie Bush battled injuries throughout his career. And this list goes on: Brian Westbrook, Duce Staley, Garrison Hearst. Together with Murray, McFadden, Williams and Jacobs, these players averaged careers of 9.6 years and 6,385 yards after struggling through injuries in college and early professional seasons. Indeed throughout their playing days. Murray’s not even done yet.

Of course there are dozens more examples of players whose careers were cut short or never got the chance to develop into productive NFL contributors because their starts were hampered by injuries. I detailed some of the more promising examples of those failures in my cautionary tale about Thomas Rawls before the 2016 season. But the common factor that made me select and compare those eight names above was not their shared success and longevity—it was their placement on internet lists of “most injury prone players of all time.” Naturally those lists are tilted toward more successful or memorable players worth mentioning, but the point is missed games and appearances on the injury report are a fact of life for NFL runners and the “injury prone” label does not forbid Prosise from becoming a solid contributor, or developing into a reliable 1,000-yard back after more limited early seasons like those names all did.

More significantly, Prosise’s injuries don’t yet seem to fit the pattern of nagging issues left over from previous wounds. Indeed his sporadic injuries happened in different circumstances in different places of his body and, except for ankle sprains more than two years apart, never recurred. The bizarre scapula thing bears most of the blame for Prosise’s lost time and it may signal radically low bone density—or it may have been a totally freak occurrence and nothing like it will happen again. Unlike most of examples above, Prosise is not even coming back from any known knee problems or surgeries—probably the most dangerous pitfall for a pro runner.

Paul Richardson’s first two seasons in Seattle both ended on injured reserve, including an ACL tear his rookie year after another earlier blown ACL and a sprained MCL at Colorado. But Richardson has spent 2016 and 2017 mostly free of injury concerns: After enduring Seahawks fans’ ire and distrust for years, Richardson seems to have successfully shaken his status as a perpetually-fragile health risk. Nobody can tell what Prosise’s future will hold, but it doesn’t seem necessarily as dictated by the past season’s visits to the infirmary as his currently available sample may lead us to wonder.

As Richardson said on the radio in September, talking about Prosise, “People are on you about your injury as if you asked for it to happen or as if you did it on purpose and hold it against you, which kind of makes no sense.”