NFL players won their bid for enhanced safety measures this summer, but large numbers of them could suffer short- or long-term setbacks in the manic rush to the 2011 season.
The consequence of a four-month lockout and condensed training camp almost certainly will expose players to higher injury rates this season, even with safeguards adopted in the league's new collective bargaining agreement.
Two-a-day practices are out and the number of workouts in pads reduced under new rules. But getting enough repetitions and work over the next month to make up for lost offseason drills may prove problematic.
Ravens team physician Dr. Andrew Tucker called it the most challenging summer of his 20-year career monitoring NFL players.
"Nobody will know what it's going to look like until the bullets start to fly, so to speak," said Tucker, who is director of Union Memorial sports medicine. "We hope the injury rates are down … but certain people may be at increased risk for certain types of injuries."
Those injuries could range from simple muscle soreness to muscle tears, stress fractures and blown knees. Players who did not commit to a high-intensity fitness program during the lockout likely will be more vulnerable to injury in the months ahead.
In the opinions of two staff members of Athletic & Personal Development program in Bradenton, Fla., the NFL is in for a rocky season from an injury perspective.
"In the best case, my guess is that 25 percent [of the league's players], over the duration of the lockout, have been doing the right things training-wise on a consistent basis," Trevor Moawad, director of performance for IMG, said. "I'm talking about max intensity, and lifting at the local gym is not max intensity. If they were in an environment like IMG or a top training facility, being pushed and challenged, they'll be fine."
Jeff Dillman, head of physical conditioning at IMG, filled in the rest of the equation.
"I think the percentage of athletes being injured in the league will be very high," Dillman said. "A lot of players trained, but they didn't really 'train' like we do here. I think there will be 75 percent more injuries this year than in the past."
Those statements may sound self-serving, but they also may be true.
Depending on resources that were available in the lock-down situation, workout regimens varied greatly. It appears most in the NFL's 2,400-plus player contingent were conservative in their routines.
Moawad said his organization served 250 players, including two player-run minicamps and the league's rookie symposium. IMG, he said, offered reduced rates and anticipated an average of 40 to 50 players per week. It got 20 to 30 instead. And those numbers were good when compared to other facilities, he said.
"From what I could gather, I think the safest thing to say is it [turnout] was lower to much lower than expected," Moawad said.
A new routine
Many players utilized personal trainers. Some went back to their college to train. Some simply trained on their own. A lot of players were influenced by finance; they no longer were covered by team insurance and were told by the union to save money.
Second-year tight end Ed Dickson, heir apparent to Todd Heap's job, checked into the Ravens facility in Owings Mills this week at 257 pounds, a slight increase over last year. He split his offseason between Eugene and Beaverton, Ore., where he spent family time with his young son.
"I used the resources that I have with being a college graduate from the University of Oregon," Dickson said. "They let me go there and use their facilities for free, so I didn't have to pay for anything."
Dickson said he worked on every aspect of his game at Oregon, including catching passes from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon, another former Duck. But he also acknowledged it wasn't the same as coming to Baltimore for offseason camps.
"Being away from football, you're never in that football shape unless you're doing those offseason workouts," he said. "But I pushed myself as hard as I can in the offseason, running hills and pushing sleds, stuff like that so I can be prepared for what I'm going to see in training camp. But you're never really going to be prepared unless you're in that structured environment."
After two solid days of conducting player physicals, Tucker said the medical staff had arrived at "a comfort level" about the fitness level of the team. "Now we know what we're dealing with," he said.
"Players that really prepared diligently will probably have a competitive edge. That goes for every offseason. There may be more separation [between players] in that regard because of the lack of supervision of teams to players."
The Ravens had at least two player-led camps in the spring, and some players, like linebacker Jameel McClain, attended not only a performance facility but a football-specific camp as well. Running back Ray Rice conducted his own version of two-a-days, and at one point, led a midnight charge up Federal Hill in Baltimore.
Even though the Ravens had several issues with heat-related cramps in Thursday's three-hour opening practice, coach John Harbaugh sounded pleased with what he saw.
"I think the overall conditioning is excellent," Harbaugh said. "I'm pleasantly surprised by the shape our guys are in. I think they're in very good shape. We had guys blowing the conditioning test [a 300-yard shuttle run] away."
Reduced to one regular practice and one walk-through each day, the Ravens need to adjust to the heat and the new practice routine. Harbaugh instantly liked the new setup and said he was disappointed he hadn't thought of the three-hour practice himself.
"The game is three hours or three hours and 15 minutes," he said. "You've got to train yourself and play like maniacs for three hours. Well, that's exactly what we're going to get a chance to do. I appreciate the Players Association on getting that done. This is a tough practice. Now we're going to get plenty of recovery time to have another tough practice tomorrow."
Moawad said in talking with peers around the league that there would be a "mixed game plan" on how to handle the shorter camp and still get ready for the season.
"Some teams say, 'We'll do what we need to do and if the players can't keep pace, so be it,'" he said. "Others will take a slow, crescendoed approach."
Moawad said he expects to see a "high volume" of strains and tears. He also placed the onus to train correctly not only on players, but their agents as well. Among the players who worked at IMG was quarterback Cam Newton, the first pick in this year's draft who signed an endorsement deal with Baltimore-based equipment maker Under Armour.
"Under Armour paid the bill to have Newton physically fit," Moawad said. "For a period of three months, they paid for Cam Newton to be in this environment, preparing mentally and physically. Some agents, some brands, some players did the right things."
Dillman said players need to prepare for the grind of training camp to better allow their bodies to recover.
"I look at training in the offseason as getting you in shape for camp and getting the body able to recover from the intense lows you go through in camp," Dillman said. "If the body is not trained, then the body will not recover fast enough, and then the muscles will not be able to maintain."
Dr. Joseph Martire, a co-founder of the Union Memorial Sports Medical Center in 1979, now retired, was a radiologist, said he thinks there will be a lot of overuse injuries, particularly at the quarterback and kicking positions, because of the heightened numbers of throws and kicks they'll have to make this summer.
"In the mildest form, you will have muscle soreness," Martire said in an email. "In the worst case, [you'll have] bone stress reactions all the way to a stress fracture."
Tucker's toughest training camp as a doctor stems from not having contact with injured players in the spring and early summer.
"It's like Christmas morning when guys start rolling in," he said. "You don't know what you're going to get. There are always, every year, surprises. Some are pleasant, some not so good. We react and respond as best we can. The unknown has made it really, really challenging."