Two weeks ago, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent home his three best players even though they had a game that night at the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.
Popovich takes a longer and more enlightened view than any coach in the NBA on the importance of rest and recovery for his players, and the Spurs were facing their fourth game in five days at the end of a six-game road trip. So he in effect conceded a marquee game to improve the chances his three aging stars (Tim Duncan, 36; Manu Ginobili, 35; and Tony Parker, 30) will be healthy and playing well for the playoffs.
Was he justified? Yes.
Independent studies show athletes are more susceptible to injury when they don’t get adequate rest after games or even hard training sessions. A 2010 study from a lab in France, for instance, showed that at the highest level of professional soccer in Europe, the chances of a player sustaining serious injury are six times greater if he plays in two games a week instead of one.
Popovich’s team-derived data no doubt shows increased injuries and diminished performance on back-to-back nights or with several games in a short span. Even people who follow the NBA, especially gamblers, know about the back-to-back effect.
Popovich’s decision hit his franchise’s pocketbook — NBA Commissioner David Stern fined the Spurs $250,000 — but you can bet he considers it a reasonable price for taking care of his most important assets. It is an issue with which all professional sports franchises grapple.
Certainly in the NFL, injuries are common and the health of key players determines championships. The past few seasons have shown that performance over the course of the 16-game regular season isn’t nearly as important to winning a Super Bowl as playing your best football in January and February.
Five of the last seven Super Bowl winners, including the Packers in the 2010 season, were seeded No. 3 or lower in their conference. The 2007 Patriots went undefeated in the regular season yet didn’t win the title, and last year the Packers saw their 15-1 season go for naught when they lost their first playoff game, at home, to the fourth-seeded New York Giants.
“I understand exactly where (Popovich) is coming from,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in a recent interview. “Rest and recovery is something we’ve talked a lot about, something we’ve had part of our thought process since I got here. We count reps. It’s the never-ending challenge of finding the threshold of what guys can and cannot endure, and trying to be smart with them.”
McCarthy, like most NFL coaches, obsesses about scheduling and considers that and knowing the pulse of his locker room his two most important jobs. Months in advance, practices and meetings are scheduled to the minute, though adjusted by circumstance. Going into each offseason, he has determined how many snaps in jog-throughs and 11-on-11 drills he thinks the team needs to be ready for the regular season, then scripts offseason and training-camp practices accordingly.
More than his three predecessors — Mike Holmgren, Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman — McCarthy has emphasized regular rest, though cutting back on two-a-days has been a trend league wide as teams learn more about its importance for players’ health. Still, McCarthy was among the first head coaches to schedule a midweek day off starting the first week of training camp and appeared ready to do away with his handful of two-a-day practices in 2011, only to see the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement do so for everyone.
Like all NFL coaches, McCarthy tapers practice length as the season goes on. He shortens it some in midseason, then more down the stretch. On the week after night games, his team doesn’t practice in pads, and after Monday night games, the work week for players starts Wednesday afternoon rather than Wednesday morning. It’s all about rest and recovery.
Still, McCarthy saw last season that doesn’t ensure peaking at season’s end. The Packers scorched through the first three months of the schedule as the league’s dominant team at 13-0 but lost an edge over the final month. Being rested at the end of the season wasn’t an issue, because McCarthy sat several key starters for the regular-season finale, then had a first-round playoff bye. Yet, that didn’t help because the peaking New York Giants soundly knocked out the Packers from the playoffs in the divisional round.
As former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick wrote in a column this week for Foxsports.com, NFL coaches face the pull between wanting their teams healthy and recovered at the end of the season, and playing sharp football. He advocates risking injury and playing starters, at least for part of a game, even if a team has the top seed locked up in the playoffs in the last week or two.
“Football teams get better by playing football games,” Billick wrote.
After last season’s playoff flame-out, McCarthy even more than usual has emphasized peaking late this season. He’s done it mainly by repeating it to his players and coaching staff, but he’s also had to make practical decisions that could be factors.
One was adjusting training camp to make up for lost practice time in the offseason, and his decision there might have been a mistake. Another is his use of personnel, and there he played younger players more early in the season even if it might have cost him some games, so the team would be better at the end of the year.
As to training camp, this year the CBA for the first time reduced organized team activities from 14 to 10. That’s four fewer practices in which to get in the total number of 11-on-11 snaps McCarthy desires from the start of the offseason through the end of the preseason.
To make up the lost snaps, McCarthy conducted longer practices the first two weeks of training camp. We’ll know in camp next year what McCarthy really thinks, but there’s a good argument he over-adjusted. All teams get hit hard by injuries in the preseason — a study in 2011 reviewing 10 years of data collected by the NFL found that half of the league’s hamstring injuries occur in training camp — but the longer early practices might have contributed to the Packers’ unusually long list. Maybe to their long injury list this season, too.
McCarthy backed off the third week of practice and the rest of camp, but he probably has to accept that three fewer offseason practices means he can’t script as many 11-on-11 full-speed snaps as in past years. He’ll have to do more in jog-through-type settings.
It’s worth remembering that the competition has the same constraints, and if some teams squeeze more full-speed work into camp, they’ll likely pay in injuries. McCarthy hinted that’s the case.
“You’re going to get it done,” he said. “It’s how you get it done.”
The playoff loss last season also made McCarthy more willing than last year to risk playing younger players early in the season so the team would be better off in January.
Of the six defensive rookies the Packers have been playing, cornerback Casey Hayward and outside linebacker Nick Perry were likely regulars no matter what. From early in the season, Hayward was one of their best defensive players. General manager Ted Thompson drafted Perry to be the starter.
But the Packers’ late-July release of Charlie Peprah ensured that either second-year pro M.D. Jennings or rookie Jerron McMillian would play regularly at safety from Day 1. McMillian still is getting a few series a game even though Jennings is ahead of him.
Also, when outside linebacker Clay Matthews was healthy, undrafted rookie Dezman Moses was getting snaps in the “Bat” package and as an occasional backup. He’s been close to an every-down player while Matthews was out with a hamstring injury.
And rookie defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels have been in the defensive line rotation since relatively early in the season, sometimes because of injuries but sometimes by the coaching staff’s choice.
“We made a conscious effort of getting more guys on the field earlier in the season,” McCarthy said, “accepting that we’d go through some growing pains potentially. Our record reflected that a little bit, but I wanted to make sure we were more well rounded, a more experienced team coming into the end.
“We’ll see how it works out.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.