Expect injury totals to rise following lockout
One of the league’s top linemen, a guy who normally plays at roughly 330 pounds, came to Gaines’ office at Athletes Performance in Carson, Calif., saying he’d heard from other players that a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement could be reached soon. The player said he needed to get in shape for training camp, which could start, as usual, by the end of July if all goes well.
The player weighed in at 400 pounds.
“You just know what’s going to happen to guys like that,” Gaines said. “They have to lose weight fast, so they’re going to do something drastic and dangerous, maybe even something illegal.”
Diuretics combined with crash dieting and training are just the beginning of what Gaines and others in his profession see as a recipe for disaster. One team doctor said earlier this offseason that he met with a veteran player who admitted to trying a radical therapy of injecting stem cells into his knee. The procedure is similar to what New York Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colôn reportedly had done to his shoulder after missing all of the 2010 season and pitching in no more than 19 games a season from 2006 to 2009.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘There’s no such thing as injecting stem cells in a joint, that’s not how they work,’ ” the doctor said, quietly incredulous. “I was lucky because this is a player who trusted me and was willing to tell me what’s going on. I can’t even imagine some of the things we’re going to see when players come back, what kind of surgeries they had that nobody knew about or the kind of rehab they may or may not have done.”
It’s all part of what Gaines and another trainer predict will be a huge rise in injuries.
“I think we’re going to see a massive amount of injuries at a level we haven’t ever seen,” said Brett Fischer, the founder of Fischer Sports in Phoenix. “It’s not just the conditioning. It’s the guys who won’t even know what they’re doing. It’s the rookies who haven’t been to a minicamp who won’t know where they’re supposed to be and don’t know the tempo of how practice works. It’s the free agents who end up with a new team not knowing the plays right away but the coaches expect them to go full-tilt.
“I think you’re going to see more hamstring injuries and muscle tears than you have ever seen before. Even for the guys who have been working out with us, we’re doing the best we can to get them ready, but you can’t hit and you can’t even replicate that speed and tempo. We’ve had guys working in cleats a lot just to get used to running again, but that’s really the best you can do.”
Inside and outside the NFL, people who understand the normal training regimen of the players are increasingly concerned about what many teams are going to see when players return for workouts after being away from team-supervised training for, in most cases, nearly six months.
Or as one general manager put it recently: “There are going to be a lot of strange soft-tissue injuries that we haven’t been told about.”
The pervasive issue trainers expect is a general lack of conditioning. After nearly 20 years of extensive offseason programs around the NFL, players have had more time than ever to relax. While some have worked with trainers and almost all have been advised to at least train on their own, Gaines and Fischer are expecting the worst.
“Between our place, Brett Fischer in Phoenix, [trainer] Pete Bommarito in Miami, you might have 200 guys who’ve been training. I had a lot of guys come to me asking if I could train them, but they didn’t have the money to do it and I told, ‘Man, I’m sorry, but I can’t train you for free,’ ” Gaines said. “You think about it, that’s maybe 200 guys out of 1,800 guys who played last year. Then there’s the rookies who maybe could or couldn’t afford to train. That’s a lot of guys who probably didn’t do much more than go to some high school or a 24-hour fitness place.”
Fischer said that the hardest part, until recently, is that few players had any sense of urgency about training because there was little understanding of when the labor impasse would end. Even now, many players aren’t training that urgently because they don’t know how soon an agreement could be reached.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel to those guys,” Fischer said.
In addition, players haven’t done extremely tough training for fear of getting hurt. Free agents and rookies who haven’t signed contracts can’t afford that risk and even players under contract can’t afford to chance getting what might be considered a non-football injury.
“Guys are staying in shape and I’ve got Donovan McNabb(notes) here working his tail off because he doesn’t know what’s going to happen when he gets back, but that’s kind of a unique situation,” Fischer said. “Most guys are being pretty careful not to push it to the point where they might hurt themselves.”
However, when practice starts again, Fischer thinks there’s going to be a heavy price paid for an offseason of inactivity.
“You think about some rookie running back who goes in there and doesn’t know who to block in practice because he hasn’t seen a playbook and then somebody comes free and just lights up the quarterback,” Fischer said.
Last month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he has heard from coaches who are concerned not only about the conditioning of players, but about the tough time they will have getting rookie players ready to play without the offseason work. As a result, the league could go with expanded rosters (the current limit is 53 during the season, including 45 active players on game day) and/or expanded practice squads to compensate.
“I do believe that the uncertainty is something that we have to consider as it relates to getting players ready to play obviously, one, from an injury standpoint and, two, from making the proper evaluations,” Goodell said. “We have talked about different concepts that, depending how long it goes, we may have to implement.”
If Gaines and Fischer are correct, there’s little question about that.