The opening days of NFL Training Camps around the country are a time of excitement for fans and players alike. The joy is often short lived as the early days of organized practices and contact generate a steady stream of serious injuries.
According to ESPN’s John Clayton, last season there was an average of about one ACL tear per day in the first 15 days of camp practices across the league. The problem has not gone away. San Francisco 49ers‘ RB Kendall Hunter tore his ACL on Friday. Dallas Cowboys’ Sean Lee, the Buffalo Bills‘ Kiko Alonso and the Atlanta Falcons’ Sean Weatherspoon also suffered the same fate early in the off-season. There have been four season-ending Achilles tendon tears – Indianapolis Colts’ RB Vick Ballard, Baltimore Ravens’ CB Aaron Ross, New England Patriots’ WR Greg Orton, and Houston Texans’ OG Cody White. Numerous hamstring pulls have also been reported.
What is it about early training camp practices that produce such dire injuries? One theory is that rule changes in the most recent CBA that have eliminated off-season hitting are to blame. Patriots’ Coach Bill Belichick has argued that players’ bodies are not experiencing contact for six months and being suddenly exposed to it in training camp leaves them susceptible to injury. These rules have limited the periods and activities in off-season conditioning programs. They have eliminated physical contact in mini-camps. The goal is laudable. Every play in the regular football season subjects players’ bodies to a G force similar to that in a traffic accident. These bodies wear down. But even if there was contact in mini-camp the problem would still exist.
There is a difference between being “in shape” and being “in football shape.” When I began representing NFL players 40 years ago, the off-season was a vacation. Players ate what they wanted to and worked out when they wanted. Training camp was used as a time to sweat off extra weight and players tended to show up equally out of shape. It was not uncommon to see players smoking. There was a line after practice at the IV station as dehydration in blistering heat took its toll on out-of-shape bodies. That has all changed.
Today players have too much at stake financially to risk ever allowing themselves to deteriorate dramatically in the off-season. Modern nutrition and training techniques, and the presence of training centers with skilled trainers, allow players to achieve amazing levels of size, strength, and speed year round. With rare exception, modern NFL players report to training camp at the peak of health and physical prowess.
When those physically toned bodies start colliding in space for the first time in six months, they are shocked and traumatized. Players’ bodies and muscles have not become acclimatized to the steady pounding and freakish angles that assault them. Inevitably, major injuries occur in the first few weeks. These can be season ending or limiting. The ability of a team to compete for the playoffs can be hampered in a split second.
Philadelphia Eagles coach, Chip Kelly, developed a conditioning plan to reduce “soft-tissue” injuries after losing four players to serious knee injuries in a span of three weeks in the 2013 preseason. Still, preventing the spate of early training camp injuries is a problem that needs further study.