Packers tap into latest training trends

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014.

Clay Matthews sees the changes taking place. When you're born into one of the NFL's first families, it's difficult not to notice.

A game once known for its jarring hits and cowboy antics has turned into a thinking man's affair. Penalties are up. The emphasis on health and wellness have never been more prevalent.

The age of technology has dawned in the NFL and officially made its way inside the Packers' locker room. A nutrition specialist has been hired. Snacks are distributed at practice. Hydration levels are checked. Sleep is monitored, and nearly every bend and curl is performed with a purpose.

NFL teams no longer are just tossing a football on the field and telling players to go after it. Now, they're detailing every stitch on the ball.

And you know what? Matthews doesn't mind.

"I think it's just the natural progression of the league," Matthews said. "There was a point where you smoked cigarettes and ate hot dogs at halftime. Now, we have specifically designed drinks for us and stuff that gets you up and going. Not to say that stuff didn't work."

Matthews, 28, has been around the league his entire life. His grandfather played in the rough-and-ready 1950s. His father's career spanned three decades. His uncle, Bruce, is a Pro Football Hall of Fame center.

He's since developed into a four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker, leading the Packers in sacks every season since general manager Ted Thompson traded into the first round to draft him in 2009.

Matthews has had his bouts with injury, too. He missed one game in 2010 with a hamstring flare-up and another four in 2012 due to a more severe strain. A twice-broken thumb limited him to 11 games last season and required two surgeries.

You can't do much to prevent a bone breaking, but soft-tissue injuries like hamstring tears are something the Packers have worked hard to combat, spurring a partnership with Australian-based Catapult Sports, a specialist in GPS-based technology.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy won't discuss the relationship in great detail, but he feels the program is working. Although the regimen wasn't tailored for Matthews per se, he's also seen how it could help him stay on the field.

"Seeing this change, I'm able to buy into it and I think the other players are too, just because of the science behind it," Matthews said. "You can't refute numbers, and I think what it's shown that this is the right way to do it or the best option right now. Maybe one day they'll say we don't have to practice at all, and we can just show up on game days."

Matthews closes his comment in jovial tone but understands there's a serious shift the league taking place in the league. Player safety has been pushed to the forefront for the NFL, and teams are leaving no stone unturned to keep players healthy.

Matthews' brother, Casey, is entering his fourth season as a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year, he was reunited with Chip Kelly, his former coach at the University of Oregon.

Kelly's no-huddle offense has roused a fast-paced approach to game-day preparation. His staff was one of the first to switch to intense yet short workouts the day before games and monitor hydration levels by checking players' urine after practices.

It serves two purposes: to start fast on Sundays and shorten the injury on Monday.

The Packers have done something similar this year. Although McCarthy said he's only talked with Kelly a couple times, they already have started to conduct their final practice the day before preseason games instead of giving players off.

In the past, players would report to Lambeau Field for a walk-through on Saturdays before a typical home game. They'd study film with position coaches, have a brief address from coordinators and be home by noon.

The new approach is more elaborate and somewhat secretive, something players feel can give them an edge.

"I would say yes because we already have the pieces in place," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "If you don't have a good football team, I don't know if hydration is going to help you much, but if you got guys who can play a little bit, I think that's going to give you just enough edge to accomplish what you want to accomplish."

Raji says you'll probably need to check back in Week 10 to get a better assessment, though there have been some early returns in camp.

A year ago at this time, the Packers had 36 different players miss practice time because of injury. So far, they've had 20.

McCarthy prefers not to discuss the future implications, but takes a lot of pride in his research-and-development department. It's also not beneath the organization to look around the league, either.

"If they're doing something that's better than what we're doing, then we're going to do it," said McCarthy, who'll conduct his first public practice the day before a game on Thursday in preparation for Oakland.

"This is the Green Bay Packers. We have tremendous resources and our organization gives us that each and every year, and we feel the changes we made have been for the best."

None of this has been lost on Matthews, who contends he hasn't talked with his brother at all about Kelly's program or the sweeping changes the Packers have implemented.

When asked about what the Eagles are doing, Matthews only offers: "I heard that they use a race car sometimes and they practice fast. That's about the extent of which I know about their program."

Still, keeping Matthews on the field is a must for the Packers' defense. Statistics show the team has done OK without him – 7-4 in games missed games due to injury – but the organization gave him a five-year, $66 million extension last year for a reason.

After missing 10 games over the past three years, Matthews has been off to a healthy start in camp. He hopes everything the organization has done continues that trend into the regular season.

"I hope so," said Matthews when asked if this can help with the Packers' soft-tissue injuries. "I've seen the research behind it, and it's only going to help us out. I think the team has bought into it, we know the benefits it will have on us, and we'll just roll with it." and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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