During the telecast of last season’s NFC championship game, Fox game analyst Troy Aikman wondered whether the Green Bay Packers’ practice schedule was the reason they were so banged up at season’s end.
A point worth considering, because the Packers are one of only a handful of teams that don’t follow the traditional NFL practice week.
Three years ago, GPS data (which monitors and analyzes players' performance during intense activity) steered coach Mike McCarthy to change: Instead of practicing Wednesday through Friday, and then holding a short jog-through Saturday, the Packers end the week by taking Fridays off and conducting an abbreviated but full-speed practice Saturday.
So to answer Aikman’s question, I looked at the injury data that Man-Games Lost collects and analyzes, and the concerns don’t hold up. The Packers have been healthier the three years since the change than they were the two seasons before. They haven’t been among the NFL’s most injured teams with the new regimen.
“There will be adjustments (to the in-season schedule), there always (are),” McCarthy said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “I’m not getting into the specifics of the GPS. … But as far as the practice on Saturday, not on Friday, we’ll stay with that format.”
Before looking at the numbers, I wondered myself. Because by the end of the playoffs the Packers were an injured mess. They had seven players hurt in playoff games whose availability was in doubt for the NFC title game. That included Jordy Nelson, Morgan Burnett, Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison and Quinten Rollins.
Atlanta had only two.
So maybe there was something about full-speed practice on Saturday that helped prime players for a game — that’s what sprinters in track do the day before a meet — but left them more susceptible to injury in a contact sport.
Measuring injuries isn’t easy. The number of players lost for games matters, but the quality of players lost matters a lot more.
According to Man-Games Lost, the Packers were among the worst-injured teams in 2012 and ‘13, the two seasons before McCarthy went to the new schedule. In ’12 they lost the most player games to injury in the league, and in ’13 the second-most.
With quality of players lost factored in — Man-Games Lost accounts for that by using the Approximate Value stat that Pro Football Reference calculates for every player in the league — the Packers ranked in the same spots both years. They were hit hard in number and quality.
Then in ’14, after McCarthy made the change, they ranked No. 15 in games lost and No. 31 in quality lost. That No. 31 ranking means that based on quality, the Packers were the second-least injured team in the NFL. Remember, they went to the NFC championship game that season and had all 53 players on their roster available for that game. Health matters.
In ‘15, they ranked Nos. 24 in games lost and 23 in quality (i.e., three-quarters of the league had worse injury problems). And last season they were Nos. 10 and 19 (i.e., about in the middle of the pack).
Now, this data is far from the final word, but it’s the best we’ve got for comparing the entire league. And three years in, it’s tough to see how you can pin any injury issues on McCarthy’s new schedule. Three seasons in the new system have been much better than the two seasons before.
To gain an outside perspective, I contacted a couple of the sports scientists I’d spoken with three years ago about GPS data. They’re in Australia, where sports science had about a decade head start on the NFL (and other major sports in the United States) in using GPS to improve performance and reduce injuries.
After corresponding with them, I came away with the same feeling I had going in. Football is a violent game, and players are going to get hurt. Often. It happens to every team but probably seems worse for the team you follow closest.
It’s a game of attrition, as Clay Matthews said last year, almost to the point of last man standing. But it mainly depends on who gets hurt, not how many. And not just the quality of the player matters, but the quality of his replacement, too.
The Packers, for instance, suffered two key season-ending injuries early in 2016, to Eddie Lacy and Sam Shields.
McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers eventually adjusted without Lacy, with the help of Ty Montgomery’s move to running back. After some bad times, the Packers from late November through the playoffs were one of the best offenses in the league.
Shields’ season-ending concussion, on the other hand, was a killer. Without him, the Packers’ cornerback play cratered because of other injuries and poor play. I can’t help think that if he’d played, the Packers at least would have made a game of the NFC championship. The difference between Shields and the rest of the Packers’ cornerbacks was that big.
Regardless, injuries always have been, and always will be, a big part of this game.
As the GPS data accumulates over the years, teams will keep nibbling around the edges in preventing the soft-tissue injuries caused by overwork. But twisted knees, broken bones and concussions? That’s mostly luck. Some guys are just sturdier than others, and some injuries are unavoidable.
“In such a violent sport as (the NFL) there are always going to be injuries, that’s the nature of the beast,” said Jace Delaney, head of sports science for the Newcastle Knights of Australia’s professional National Rugby League. “But, if you can use this technology correctly, you can limit the risk of injury.
“To be honest, our biggest use for GPS is improving performance. Getting bogged down in trying to predict injuries that are inevitable is an issue that a lot of staff in my position battle with every day.”