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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  1. Sure there may be HGH in the Niners locker room, but I think the big culprit is overuse. The long season takes its toll. RayMcD took 1 week off and started working out. The coaching thing continues the stirring the pot and the blame game trend of this blog. Harbaugh gives veterans plenty of time off in the preseason and training camp. Players have to be in football shape to play football, so they need that pads on, contact stuff to be ready for the season. The team is building chemistry, you can’t have a cohesive defense if your defense is starting with Okoye and Wilhote. They have to be able play together. When that happens, some players get hurt.

  2. A great read. Timely. Important. Addresses the questions everybody’s been asking themselves. .

    Did you happen to ask about yoga/Pilates/ballet?

      1. Roger Craig used it back in the day, and there are pics somewhere of he and JR in full on ballet outfits somewhere. Ask your dad.

        All of those types exercises should be utilized a LOT more often, as they tend to strengthen tendons and ligaments.

      2. E
        I was teasing you the other day with my ‘Tutu’ wisecrack. I completely agree in fact, but I’ve come across many, many trainers who stress flexibility training for anyone, especially those who work with weights. I first came across it in the 60s with an Olympic Weight Lifter. He used a bar without weights to lead himself through a routine that imitated Kendo training.
        Pit WR Lynn Swann was a proud advocate of ballet and other dance as a major help. he used ballet extensively and is the HOF.
        My suspicion is that various approaches like that are in the mainstream of modern training staffs.

      3. Brotha, primetime being an exception that comes to mind….I believe he said he never stretched prior to playing.

      4. Tai chi is the most diabolical form of exercise I’ve ever encountered. Every move is simple, almost boringly easy. But after 30 minutes you feel like a freight train dragged you across Nevada.

  3. Great article Grant. Niners have been falling like flies. Last preseason it was OLBs all getting hurt. Now its the speed guys.

    Been wracking my brains trying to find a reason for all the Achilles breaks. I’m even starting to think teams should screen for Haglund deformities (“pump bumps” that stretch the tendon more then usual).

    In the 80-90′s we would have blamed astroturf or cleats that are too long. Today everyone thinks HGH. I’m leaning toward the long seasons. The bye weeks might actually make the situation worse.

    One thing is certain… an 18 game regular season would be brutal. Don’t really need the stupid pro bowl either. 4 preseason games adds little to team development relative to risk.

    Are “injuries that sideline a player for eight days or more have increased 37 percent…” a season long stat or just pertaining to the training camps and OTAs?

    1. One culprit could be changes in game tempo since the 80′s.

      Watch an old 49ers VCR tape and see far less stopping for TV (commercial) time outs, play reviews etc. Also notice how the play clock worked differently. There were more plays per game then.

      The added stoppages meant more rest, which lead to players having a bit less aerobic fitness but far more explosive strength. Its simple physics…
      Increased advertising stoppages = More rest during a games = Bigger, more explosive players.

      Its the old money for safety trade off again. Money usually wins.

  4. This was more relevant a couple of weeks ago:

    Seifert: “Jerry and John Taylor both had the ability to run after the catch. We could score quickly. That’s what made those teams so great.”

  5. I don’t know Grant. I used to go watch training camp in Rocklin as a teenager, and Ronnie Lott was always hammering guys, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. The two worst injuries, Crabtree and Culliver occurred without contact, same with all the hamstring pulls.

    I agree about giving vets a day off here and there, which is something I believe Harbaugh has done in the past.

    I appreciative you looking into the subject though. I think if you asked 10 people why they think this is occuring you would get 10 different answers.

    1. The non-contact injuries fascinate me. Players’ bodies may be breaking down because their muscles are too explosive and put a ton of strain on the hip, knee and Achilles.

      1. That makes sense. The medical piece MidWest posted regarding ACL injuries yesterday was pretty interesting.

        Bigger Stronger Faster than the body can handle.

      2. Are NFL athletes really “bigger, stronger, and faster” since 2009? Are they using more HGH now than in 2009? One thing we know for sure is that there is significantly less physical contact in all off-field activities in in the NFL since 2011. Since this reduction in physical contact coincides with an increase in injuries (according to your source), how would further reducing off-field activities help?

      3. The majority of Achilles and ACL injuries are occurring without contact. Also the new CBA went into effect in 2011, this data predates the changes.

        It will be interesting to track these types of injuries once the NFL puts testing for HGH into place.

    2. Hammer,
      I (and my 12 yr old) would make the trip to Rocklin from the Central Valley to catch TC.
      I’ll never forget watching Jerry Rice making a 15 yrd slant catch at their 20 yrd line and running full speed for 80 yrds (with no one chasing him) to mimic a TD.

      The great ones like JR and now PWill, Justin Smith and others will go at full speed in practice as if in a real game because it’s become a part of their football DNA.

      I brought up this subject yesterday, and my take is that players of today now keep a strict training regiment in the off-season because of the intense competition (of making the team, or losing a starting position) and huge contracts that could be jeopardized by coming in to camp out of shape.
      The players bodies are never given the ample time needed to fully recuperate from a previous season of physical stress.

    3. some of my best sports memories stem from the rocklin TC days! I wish they never left. IMHO 2 a days in the triple digit Rocklin heat gave them a huge advantage on teams in the second half of games. Bottom line….i think we were one of the best conditioned teams, and having smaller O-linemen helped the cause!

  6. Or maybe these are just freak, unfortunate injuries? The hindsight from fans and media when it comes injuries is always top notch. What was Chris Culliver doing on special teams? Is that a joke? Not sure if you noticed, but teams dress, what, 45 guys on game day. They don’t exactly have the luxury of keeping their young, #3 corners off the special teams units. What’s Patrick Willis doing on a blitz drill? Ummmm…practicing?? What’s Michael Crabtree doing….running a route?

    Look, football is an intense physical game. Injuries happen. There are much smarter people than us, spending much more time than us planning how to keep these athletes healthy. We have been pretty darn healthy the last couple years with the most notable injury actually leading to an upgrade. This is just local media and fans overreacting to us being a little unlucky for the first time in a while.

    1. I don’t know how many trainers you know, but very few of them fall in the category of “smart.” Most, if not all, are of relatively average intelligence. What the Suns training staff does has become common knowledge, but it’s not like other NBA training staffs have changed their ways. This is why there are a substantial number of players who end up getting their own trainers. Because, face it, the top trainers aren’t going to be on teams getting a set salary and working 40 hrs a week.

    2. “What’s Patrick Willis doing on a blitz drill? Ummmm…practicing?? What’s Michael Crabtree doing….running a route?”

      Holy moly! Couldn’t have said it better. Thank you

  7. It does not appear to be the “large, fast guys” that are getting hurt around the NFL, as that guy claims. Culliver, Crabs, Harvin, etc are not super big guys… They got hurt running around the field, which they are suppose to be conditioned for.

    Its hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is, all teams suffer injuries, no matter their training style.

    Maybe these kids grew up eating McDonalds and other crap food, like so many city kids these days. Its the “country strong” players like Justin Smith who rarely get hurt and play through minor injuries when they have them. Most country boys dont eat processed junk food and we are a product of the building materials we put in our bodies, right?

    Diets usually dont improve until players hit the NFL and learn from their peers and coaches, but many of the important growth years are already behind them. You never saw Jerry Rice go down with training camp injuries, even minor ones and he was a health nut from a very young age. Kids eat worse nowadays than ever before.

    1. Justin Smith didn’t even make it to 2 seasons under the Harbaugh regimen.

      And, fyi, ligament and tendon injuries are caused by trauma, stress and overuse.

      1. I dont think a partially torn tricep is comparable to the type of injuries the other players are experiencing.

        JS has been a beast for the Niners. He gets constantly trample on by huge offensive linemen and just keeps playing, EVERY SNAP. These little guys that get hurt running around the field during practice, are no where near as durable as JS has proven to be year in and year and he takes more double-teaming abuse than anybody on the defense.

        How about the Offensive linemen, they are the biggest and most powerful group on the team and how often do they go down with major injuries?

        I bet if they did survey and compared the kids who grew up eating whole meats, grains and fruits/vegetables. To the poor city kids who grew up eating Happy Meals and other processed frozen crap, you would see a dramatic difference in the overall health and durability of the 2 groups. I bet most doctors would agree with this logic. We already know that the food we eat is causing early diabetes in youth, etc, etc, etc. Why wouldn’t this crap food also produce weaker tendons, bones, etc?

        Micro nutrients are the key to supreme health, not the macro nutrients… and you dont get gain a vast amount of micro nutrients in processed food. Only in whole foods. It all starts in the kitchen

  8. Bottom line boys and girls, injuries are part of football. No way around it. You try and minimize it as best you can. Constitutions are as different as personalities. We used to have an adage in boot camp that if you can’t make it through, you wouldn’t stand a chance in theatre….

  9. Great article Grant!

    It really makes you think more in depth about the situation. I think JH should give vets more time off, but I think it’s more about competition, than over playing. Guys know that they aren’t being handed a spot, if they want to play they have to prove that they deserve to be on the field, this fierce competition may push guys to over do it on the practice field.

    I think this may be a conditioning thing…over-conditioning is likely the culprit. These guys are hitting the weight room big time and they’re beefed up. Whether HGH is involved, we may never know, but we certainly know that players are much bigger these days.

    I actually think the NFL might be reaching the point of diminishing returns. Because guys are bigger and are damaging their bodies faster, should they not participate as much in training camp? But how does that effect their ability to learn through reps and apply the classroom element into the game and on the field? Those reps allow guys to process faster on the field through muscle memory…so will this slow down the game or make it sloppier. Does it force teams to take the complexity out of the game? Does this mean that guys will have shorter careers because their bodies won’t hold up?

    The NFL is already trying to make the game “safer,” and I’m sure there’s some room to make it safer, but it seems as if they can only do so much before it turns into a game of tag.

  10. First of three teams just drafted for NFL Fantasy Football:

    Kaepurnicus
    Lynch
    Lacey
    Hicks
    Green
    Graham
    Torry Smith
    Dawson
    Bengals

    Bench:

    Flacco
    LeShore
    Zac Stacey
    Welker
    Mike Williams
    S. Rice

    1. You picked a Seabastard for your fantasy team?

      Dude. Take your Adderall and go sit in the corner for 20 minutes. You’re on a time-out.

    2. not bad. 12 team league right? im going to “keep” CK7 and i would love to land Lynch in the 1st round ( its a keeper league, and at least 7 and maybe 9 RB’s will be keepers, thus off the board b4 first pick)

      Best layers available 1st pick of 1st round will be Foster, Lynch Rice

  11. good stuff, Grant. if we could get HGH, testosterone, etc out of the game, I would still gladly watch the greatest football players in the world, even if their top end speed and burst became more human, and less superhuman. the NFL is rich enough that it could go to essentially daily testing and they could afford it. but they’re afraid to lose revenues. ah, the Almighty Dollar

  12. “Bills QB Kevin Kolb slipped on a wet rubber mat and stumbled at Bills training camp today Saturday. He then had trouble standing.”

    Now guys are getting hurt on the way to practice. Maybe the NFL needs to adopt the Allen Iverson approach.

      1. Somewhere in a blacked home in Stephenville, Tx, a doll made of twigs, natural tar, and cloth dons a new #4 Bills jersey. The bit of hair left behind by the local hero is gripped by the blackened fingernails of a 27 year old ex-prom queen. The tattered remnants of a #4 cardinals jersey and a #4 eagles jersey lay haphazardly on the wet mat at her feet…
        The Stephenville Empire Tribune lay across the front porch. The axed headliner, Giant UFO Siting, 1 mile long, pushed to the foreground by…”Local Hero Kolb Injures Himself Slipping on Mat, Is he cursed? “, fades in the morning sun.

  13. Thanks for the auspicious writeup. It actually was a amusement account it. Glance complicated to far introduced agreeable from you! However, how could we keep in touch?

  14. I didn’t get a chance to comment on this article but I wanted to say that Harbaugh doesn’t run anywhere close to the most physical TC (just read PK’s piece in today’s MMQ to get a glimpse of the Steelers TC) and we see players get injured every year from the most insignificant instances imaginable. There may be something to the playing more games makes a team more susceptible to injury theory, but personally I look at the NFL and see teams with injury problems who are perennial losers as much as I see it from the perennial playoff teams. It’s a physical sport and a sport that even when not physical is trying on the joints of the body with it’s quick bursts and cuts. I read this same kind of story every year and the same reason can be used every year: It’s a tough game and hard on the body. Newsflash: it’s been that way since the beginning of it’s existence and TC’s now are nowhere near as difficult as the days of two a day padded practices.

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