Modified practice schedule pays dividends
INDIANAPOLIS — Last week, Mike McCarthy finally let on how much he really liked the new practice schedule he went to last season.
Almost as an aside during his news conference announcing changes on his coaching staff, the Green Bay Packers coach said he'd "hit a home run" with the practice changes, the most notable of which was the flip-flopping of Fridays and Saturdays during the season.
One year no doubt is too small a sample to declare unequivocal victory. But McCarthy is justified in thinking the changes were largely responsible for his team's uncommonly good health last season and strong play down the stretch.
The numbers back it up. According to the Press-Gazette Media's injury data from training camp last season, Packers players collectively missed 142 practices because of injuries sustained once camp started. In 2013, that number was 244.
That is drastic. A little more than 100 fewer practices missed. A 42 percent decline.
"I think it definitely helped us," McCarthy said as he knocked on a table during an interview with several media outlets at the NFL scouting combine Thursday afternoon. "I think (luck) is a part of it, too. We had the two big injuries early with B.J. (Raji, torn biceps) and Don Barclay (knee) in training camp, and Jared (Abbrederis, knee). Those are two ACLs and biceps.
"The way (camp) started it off, I was like, 'Whoa.' But the way (the players') bodies were at the end of the year, which is the most important part of the year, and the way they felt even coming out of the Seattle game, it's never been that good."
The best comparative NFL injury information isn't yet available — FootballOutsiders.com has metrics that rate all teams for how badly they were hit by injuries by a combination of the quantity and quality of players lost. But those rankings aren't out yet.
Still, for a starting point, in the four seasons from 2010-13, the Packers were among the three most injured teams in three of them. And a quick look at the Packers' injuries the past five regular seasons suggests they won't rank anywhere near that for 2014.
In 2010, they had 16 players finish the season on injured reserve, including eight starters or regular rotational players: Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Morgan Burnett, Brad Jones, Mike Neal, Nick Barnett, Mark Tauscher and Brandon Chillar.
In '11, they had only six players on IR, but three were starters or rotational players: Nick Collins, Alex Green and Andrew Quarless.
In '12, they finished with eight players on IR, including five regulars: Nick Perry, Desmond Bishop, Bryan Bulaga, Quarless and Derek Sherrod.
And in '13, they finished with 15 players on IR, including four regulars: Bulaga, Finley, Johnny Jolly and Casey Hayward.
Then there's last season, when the IR numbers fell in the middle, with 10. But only one of them, Raji, was a starter or rotational regular.
Looked at it another way, the Packers' offense lost only one start because of injury all season, to Bulaga in Week 2 because of a sprained knee. On defense, Raji was injured in training camp and didn't play, but only three regulars missed as many as three games each (Brad Jones, Datone Jones and Davon House).
That's about as healthy as it gets in the NFL and was reminiscent of the Packers' 1996 Super Bowl season, when their defense lost only one start to injury the entire regular season, to defensive end Sean Jones.
"(Health) is a huge factor in being successful," McCarthy said. "Particularly at (certain) positions on both sides of the football — the quarterback, the offensive line, and probably your pass rushers and your guys that can cover."
McCarthy won't reveal many details about the practice schedule changes, though the outline was obvious to regular observers.
In individual practices, McCarthy used to start with a lengthy jog-through, and then go to the full-speed portion of the workout. But GPS data has shown that jog-throughs and walk-throughs in all sports are more fatiguing than teams realized, and can leave players more susceptible to fatigue injuries late in the full-speed portions of practice.
So McCarthy moved much of the jog-through teaching to the end of practice, when the fatigue doesn't matter because players aren't moving fast enough to get hurt.
The weekly schedule change was more dramatic. McCarthy switched Friday from the last full practice of the week to a rest and recovery day, where the only on-field work is a jog-through. Then on Saturday, he conducts a short, full-speed practice whose purpose is to prime players' central nervous systems without being so long as to fatigue them.
The Philadelphia Eagles appear to have been the first team in the league to take that approach, in 2013. Miami coach Joe Philbin and Seattle coach Pete Carroll also have a Saturday practice in that vein.
My guess is that within five years, most if not all the league will be practicing this way.
"Launching everything on Saturday, was definitely the right way," McCarthy said. "And, frankly, the way we built up to it was the right thing to do. You know, when you have a really good idea and a big change like that you're going to make, if you don't get it introduced and you don't get it installed, a lot of times that stuff fails. And I was so worried about how we were going to get that thing off the ground.
"We did it for four weeks in training camp … and it changed every single week. And then we went into an odd week in Seattle (Thursday night opener), so it wasn't until the second or third week where I felt it was starting to roll."
McCarthy also hinted that the new schedule played a small role in his decision to hand off play calling to Tom Clements this offseason. Going into the season, McCarthy thought that he'd have more time for game planning because there wasn't practice on Friday, but he discovered that with his play-calling duties and other responsibilities plus a regular (if shortened) practice Saturday, he was stretched thinner than ever.
"That's what change does," McCarthy said. "It worked out good for everybody else."