One of the keys to the 2020 NFL season will be keeping players healthy.
In the midst of a pandemic, that sounds like an obvious statement. But for the Giants, it’s going to go beyond coronavirus testing and infection protocols.
Since the spring, one of the biggest concerns for rookie head coach Joe Judge has been trying to figure out how to keep the players from suffering the types of injuries that can spike when they return to football activities after an extended period away from them.
As the Giants and other teams reported for training camp this week, most of the players have not participated in actual football activity in seven months or more. It likely is the longest such gap in many of their lives. That almost certainly will increase the risk of soft tissue “acclimation” injuries as well as more serious and often season-ending ones such as Achilles ruptures and ACL tears.
It did the last time players were in something close to this predicament.
That was in 2011, the year of the NFL lockout, when players had no offseason program in the spring and cannonballed straight into training camp in late July . . . with some scary results.
“When you track 2011, which is the last year we didn’t have an offseason program with players, the injury data is what it is, the highest recorded in the league in recent years,” Judge said.
That was true for injuries that were overcome, such as hamstrings and quadriceps, but also more significant ones.
From 2009 to 2016, the NFL saw 101 documented Achilles ruptures, or about 13 per season, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. In 2011, there were 10 just in the first two weeks of training camp and two more during the first two weeks of preseason games.
ACL tears overall were down in 2011, but most attribute that to the lack of offseason work and there still were 35 in that preseason . . . basically an average of one per team.
And that was nine years ago, when players spent the offseason away from their teams but still could train at gyms and travel around the country for workouts. Many of those avenues have been cut off from the athletes since March.
Could a rash of significant injuries wind up ending this season for a higher-than-usual number of players before the season even begins?
“I think it’s a little bit unknown right now,” said Dr. David Chao, former team physician for the Chargers and founder of the website ProFootballDoc.com. “I think it depends on how prepared guys are coming in and what they were able to do with individual workouts. It depends on what a player's body and makeup is; some guys are just ready to go and some guys need a longer acclimation. And it depends on what the coaches are asking them to do.”
Because of how the preseason is structured this summer, most teams won’t start anything that resembles an actual football practice until about midway through August. Until then, they’ll be working on conditioning and acclimation, building up to those practices that have been absent from their lives for so long.
“This year it’s going to change,” Chao said. “They’re not going to start with a regular practice schedule at the beginning of camp; they’ll allow more time for acclimation. The smart coaches will realize that to try to cut down on soft tissue injuries that happen early on.”
The Giants did have a virtual offseason program, and while it was focused on team-building and positional meetings, Judge said the physical demands of the sport and the risks of a return after a long absence were addressed.
“We’ve stressed to our players and met with them on a daily basis giving them tips for training and the importance of training, trying to educate them more so than anything else,” Judge said. “We really placed an emphasis on our players to make sure that they come back in great cardiovascular shape. That will help them tremendously on the field.
"Mostly it’s staying healthy. You have to train your body to be healthy on the field and you need time to train. I have no doubt with the way they worked in the classroom that they are working away from the classroom as well in terms of training their bodies.”
Judge also recognized that some of the responsibility for pacing their return to action will lie with him.
“These guys can’t go from zero to 100,” he said. “You have to give them a chance to train and get their bodies ready. There are things that when you train on your own that you can’t simulate, and it’s the reactive movements that you are so vulnerable to . . . I’m going to have to structure practices according to how I see the team when they get in here. But at the same time, it can’t be walk-jog-run. We have to get them in there and get them going, too.”
The 2011 season isn’t remembered in East Rutherford only for the lockout and the early injuries around the league. It also was the year the Giants won the Super Bowl.
That’s not to say they did so by avoiding injuries. That season they lost their starting middle linebacker (Jonathan Goff), starting left tackle (Will Beatty), starting cornerback (Terrell Thomas) and two key wide receivers (Dominik Hixon and Brandon Stokley) to injuries. They were lucky enough to be able to replace all of them and keep moving forward.
As the 2020 season begins, Judge would rather not try to win that way.
“That’s really our top concern right now is football-wise, making sure the players can physically prepare their bodies and we can give them the resources and tools to do so,” he said, “so that when we return to play, everyone can play safely and aggressively.”