NFL teams need to rethink regimens for players’ safety

Here is my Friday column on the recent rash of NFL offseason and training camp injuries.

Have you noticed how many NFL players already have torn ACLs or Achilles’ tendons this offseason?

We’re not even two weeks into training camp, and already nine NFL players have torn ACLs and three have ruptured Achilles, and most of these injuries involved no contact. So far, 14 49ers have injured themselves and they haven’t played a single preseason game.

What’s the deal? Are the players spontaneously combusting?

The NFL wants to prevent these season-ending injuries, so they rolled back practice hours in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. But since 2009, injuries that sideline a player for eight days or more have increased 37 percent, according to an Edgeworth Economics study. How can that be?

First, let’s examine the 49ers and then the NFL.

“The 49ers’ season was much longer than everybody else’s in the league,” said a former NFL trainer who requested anonymity. “That’s the first thing you’ve got to look at.”

The 49ers played 19 games last season. The season before, they played 18. Of the 14 49ers who have injured themselves this offseason, six of them played in all or almost all of those 37 games – Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Jonathan Goodwin, Chris Culliver and Michael Crabtree.

“The 49ers are in big trouble right now,” said the former NFL trainer. “The hay already is in the barn. Depending on what happens this year, they may need to look at their offseason and training camp and do some things differently next year. For example, I know one club – and the man who was coaching this team no longer is there – but it was a team that normally played deep into the playoffs, and I know for a fact they would give their older veterans more days off from practice during the regular season and in training camp. He recognized his team had played deep into the playoffs and his players might not be totally recovered going into the next season.”

Jim Harbaugh doesn’t do this. He runs his training camp like a boot camp. He wants effort, competition and participation across the board. He treats his millionaire veterans like unproven collegiate athletes. This approach worked brilliantly in 2011 when Harbaugh turned an under-achieving team into a 13-3 power house.

But this offseason, Harbaugh’s coaching style backfired. He already lost his No.1 receiver and No.3 cornerback, Crabtree and Culliver. To replace Crabtree, Harbaugh set up an open competition, hoping a receiver would step up. None has, but five have injured themselves – Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton, Kassim Osgood and Brandon Carswell.

Harbaugh should think about the positions he’s put his key players in. Culliver injured his knee on a special teams drill. Is it wise to have a vital cornerback play special teams?

Willis broke his hand in a blitzing drill. What did Willis have to gain from participating in such a violent drill?

Crabtree tore his Achilles making a simple cut in a closed practice. Why was Crabtree practicing at all given his extensive injury history? He’s only made it through one training camp injury-free, and that was last year.

Harbaugh needs to adapt to peak-conditioned professional athletes. They’re a different species than the players he coached at Stanford. He needs to lighten up.

“We’re looking at larger players who are buffed up to the max and are just as fast as the little guys and when they cut, momentum tears things,” said Gary Furness, a Santa Rosa physician for the California State Athletic Commission. “It’s the laws of physics.”

NFL players are some of the biggest, strongest and fastest athletes in the world, and they’re only getting bigger and stronger and faster. Has the bigger-stronger-faster axiom reached its limit?

“I think it has,” said Furness. “Most sports do things the human body was not designed for. There are limits, and I think from the hips on down we’re seeing some of the weaknesses of trying to have really large, fast guys make quick cuts.”

Here’s the tricky question I’m sure you’ve been wondering: Are these non-contact season-ending lower-body injuries an indication of performance-enhancing drug use? As we know, the NFL does not test for Human Growth Hormone.

“I wasn’t going to bring up that ugly subject,” said the former NFL trainer. “I wouldn’t say that in a court room, so I’m not going to say that. What I will say is there is no doubt these guys are bigger and stronger. They’re bigger and stronger than when I worked in the ’80s and in the early ’90s. And they’re definitely faster. So, you’re more likely to see these kinds of things happen.

“I’ll give you an example. I talked to a baseball trainer who told me that the biomechanical forces on the shoulder of a pitcher throwing in the high 90s is drastically greater than the biomechanical forces on a pitcher throwing in the low 90s. That’s a five-mile-an-hour difference between 92 and 97. To the average person, that doesn’t sound like much. But once a guy gets into the high 90s, there is a good chance he isn’t going to have a long career. He just isn’t going to be able to hold up because his shoulder can’t take that repetitive, excessive abuse, for a lack of a better word.

“I think you can probably make the same assumption here with these NFL players.”

In other words, Culliver and Crabtree and other NFL players’ whose tendons or ligaments recently have exploded are like flame-throwing pitchers or race cars in the red. They may have been destined to break down.

Coaches and trainers and collective bargaining agreements only can protect players up to a certain point. Players need to protect themselves, too. Whatever “supplements” they may be taking and however much they’re training on their own or with the team, it’s probably time to dial back.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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