Football Outsiders recently released its annual report on adjusted games lost to injury, and for the Eagles, there was bad and good news in the results.
To no surprise, they finished 21st out of 32 NFL teams with 84.4 games lost to injury, the term adjusted used to reflect FO’s metric that includes every injury report listing and weighs the loss based on a player’s role and position on a team.
While the Eagles couldn’t have been satisfied with their ranking – FO’s analytics have long been utilized by teams – they did see a 6.6% increase in defense-adjusted value over average from 2018 when they finished last in the league with 117.0 games lost.
But that slight improvement probably wasn’t what ultimately pleased the team. The Eagles’ total of 201.4 games lost over the last two seasons, after all, was fourth-worst behind only the New York Jets (230.5), Redskins (226.6), and Jaguars (202.7).
What had to excite general manager Howie Roseman and company were the teams that ranked second and fifth on the opposite end of that ledger: the Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams. The Eagles were likely aware of their standing as two of the healthier teams in the NFL; otherwise they wouldn’t have hired Tom Hunkele from the Vikings or Ted Rath from the Rams.
The rankings, though, further verified the offseason additions of Hunkele as director of sports medicine and Rath as director of sports performance, and confirmed what Roseman said in January: that the Eagles aren’t downplaying the impact injuries had on their last two seasons.
“One of the things that obviously has been an issue for us has been the injury situation,” Roseman said then. “When we look at the last three years, in 2017, we were able to overcome it. The last two years, the injuries have really hurt our football team.
“There is a part of that that is natural during the game. Injuries are going to happen. But we have to figure out a way to get better here. We can help from a front-office perspective by looking at the players that we bring in. Hope is not a strategy when it comes to injuries.”
The Eagles took gambles on veterans, or players with recent injuries, to help keep the core of the 2017 Super Bowl-winning team in place. But in many of those cases – e.g. Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Ronald Darby, Tim Jernigan -- the players would only get hurt again.
As Roseman noted, injuries are part of the game. Malik Jackson, for instance, hadn’t missed a game in seven seasons before suffering a season-ending foot injury in the opener. But the Eagles clearly made a concerted effort this offseason to move on from various players or bring in younger/healthier free agents.
The biggest changes, though, were the departures of Shaun Huls, director of high performance, and Shireen Mansoori, director of rehabilitation, and the arrivals of Hunkele and Rath, who combined have more than 30 years of NFL experience.
When Roseman decided after the Super Bowl to move on from the Eagles’ top two doctors, Peter DeLuca and Gary Dorshimer, and their head athletic trainer, Chris Peduzzi -- for whatever the reasons – he allowed 60 years of experience to walk out of the building in a shortened offseason when so many players were coming off surgery.
In turn, he brought in replacements with either much less NFL experience or none. While Roseman took some responsibility for the Eagles’ injury woes, hiring the proficient Hunkele and Rath was seemingly an acknowledgment that some of his initial changes were deemed mistakes.
There was bound to be an adjustment period with so much turnover, but new doctors and trainers with new methods and manners made transitioning that much harder. In an attempt to bring more uniformity to the Eagles’ sports medicine and performance staffs, Roseman hired Arsh Dhanota as chief medical officer in June 2019 to oversee operations.
Dhanota, also head team physician, didn’t have as much NFL experience as his one-year predecessor, Stephen Stache, but he did intern with the Eagles under Dorshimer from 2013-14, along with the Flyers and 76ers, before heading Penn’s sports medicine department.
“This is someone that we are very, very excited to have,” Roseman said in January. “He came in in June and what he asked for us was that he would observe through the season, observe our training staff, observe our weight staff, our sports science, our processes, and make recommendations to us that we would carry out.”
Those recommendations led to hiring Hunkele and Rath, the former whom the Eagles had already known from his six years (2000-05) with the organization under former head trainer Rick Burkholder. Eric Sugarman, another Burkholder acolyte, took Hunkele with him to the Vikings, and together they would head one of the league’s more consistent training staffs.
In terms of FO’s games lost, Minnesota finished with an average rank of 10th in the last nine seasons. In 2017, it was named the NFL’s athletic training staff of the year. Burkholder, who followed Andy Reid to the Chiefs in 2013, and then Peduzzi, similarly had success getting Eagles players back out on the field compared to the rest of the league.
In Peduzzi’s five years in charge, the team finished with an average rank of sixth in games lost. In tabbing Hunkele, the Eagles clearly sought to bring back into the fold someone who understood the franchise and the methodology that was fostered under Burkholder.
The Eagles have invested deeply in their sports medicine and science departments in recent years, and in technological advancements. They also adopted a European model that relies heavily on GPS tracking, that many NBA teams use, in determining recovery for soft-tissue injuries.
“I think it’s a great resource for us,” Roseman said of GPS tracking in February. “It’s not the end-all-be-all as we look at it, but it shows play speed as much as it does track speed, so when that kind of matches up, like any decision, we talk about it a lot, we want the tape to match up with the numbers, and we feel really good.”
But football is much different than soccer or basketball, and the NFL schedule much shorter than the Premier League or NBA. Mansoori, who was hired during the 2018 offseason, had also only worked previously in the WNBA.
The Eagles’ number of soft-tissue injuries not only increased from 2018-19, but so, too, did recovery time. In football, it’s nearly impossible to feel 100% as the season progresses. But to some outside observers who work in NFL sports medicine, the Eagles had become too conservative in soft-tissue rehabilitation.
Mansoori was just one piece of the cog. Cornerback Jalen Mills, who missed almost a year with an unspecified foot injury, publicly defended and credited her with his seamless return after she left in February. But the Eagles opted not to fill her position, in part because their sports medicine and performance staff is already 16 strong.
Hunkele will supervise the training department with head athletic trainer Jerome Reid, who was hired to replace Peduzzi in 2018, now reporting to him. Rath replaced Huls, in essence, and will manage strength and conditioning. He has already implemented changes and will be instrumental in keeping players in shape virtually until team facilities are permitted to fully reopen.
Rath spent three seasons with the Rams and over the span they finished with an average rank of fifth in fewest games lost. He was on leave for part of last year after being charged with three counts of misdemeanor sexual battery when a woman alleged he touched her inappropriately while sleeping in June 2018. Rath was acquitted after a trial and returned to the Rams.
He was perhaps most famous for a viral NFL Films clip of his sideline responsibility for pulling coach Sean McVay out of harm’s way as his “get-back coach.” But the Rams’ relatively good health was an obvious factor in the Eagles’ luring him from L.A., although the move was lateral.
Age likely had something to do with their rankings. The Rams had one of the NFL’s youngest rosters, while the Eagles conversely have been among the oldest. While there isn’t always a correlation, Roseman sought to acquire younger free agents this offseason, the average age of the new faces being 27.3.
Aside from wide receiver Marquis Goodwin, the new additions also don’t have significant injury histories. The same could be said of the Eagles’ 10 draft picks, except for tackle Prince Tega Wanogho.
Goodwin and Tega Wanogho were minor gambles, though, costing only sixth-round picks.
“If you’re going to do something like that, the resource you put into it, you’ve got to be willing to say there’s a good chance this won’t work out,” Roseman said in February. “We have to learn from it, and maybe for a period of time, go back to studying, especially when we have new [medical] people here, and figuring out what kind of injuries we’re good at figuring out and what are the things that translate going forward instead of sitting here and thinking we have all the answers.
“That hasn’t worked.”