As the Eagles adopted a more conservative approach to injuries during training camp in recent years, some staff members had coined a sardonic motto in response to not having players for practice or the preseason:
September is the new August.
To some inside the NovaCare Complex, there was a direct correlation to the Eagles’ slow starts the last three seasons and having key pieces use the first several weeks of the regular season for getting in shape and in sync with their teammates.
But the sentiment extended beyond the medical staff’s handling of camp injuries and to their overall philosophy when it came to player health. Prudence isn’t always the best recipe for success, especially in the NFL, where availability is maybe not the best ability, but one of them.
The Eagles had the opportunity to revert to a more aggressive process with new coach Nick Sirianni. But based upon his shorter, lighter practices, and seemingly the same cautiousness in relation to injuries, September is still the new August, and Sirianni is merely following recommendations.
“All that goes down to player health and I’m not the expert in that,” Sirianni said Thursday when asked about the length of his workouts. “So myself and our strength staff and our training staff and our doctors and [general manager] Howie Roseman, we all get together and we talk about how do we keep those guys ... available, right?
“If they are not available, that ability is worth nothing.”
The Eagles have avoided major injury through the first nine practices of camp. But it’s not as if they’re healthy. They had a dozen who suffered setbacks since players reported on July 27 on their injury list Saturday, most of the soft-tissue variety. And five — including starting guard Isaac Seumalo and receiver DeVonta Smith — received week-to-week designations.
There isn’t one of the 12 whose availability for Week 1 appears in jeopardy, but the season opener is still five weeks away, and the Eagles still have joint practices with two teams and three preseason games.
Guard Brandon Brooks, who missed all last season with an Achilles tendon rupture, was sidelined with a hamstring injury just days into camp. The team continued to deem his timetable for return “day-to-day” as of Saturday, but it’s now been over a week.
The Eagles also downplayed the significance of Smith’s MCL knee sprain, in part because their first-round draft pick had done well at the start of camp. But how much could they really know about his readiness after just three full practices in shorts and shells?
Perhaps Smith is back sooner rather than later. Maybe one preseason game is all he needs. But based upon the Eagles’ recent preseasons, the starters won’t play much, and if anyone is remotely injured, they won’t play at all.
Sirianni said that preseason playing time will be made on a “case-by-case basis.” But judging by his practices thus far, he won’t push the envelope.
Nearly every NFL team has dialed back on the intensity of practice. The players have negotiated various restrictions on workouts in recent years, whether through the existing collective bargaining agreement or because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that only partially explains Sirianni’s softer touch. Most of his practices so far have been only 75 minutes long. One took an hour and 45 minutes. He didn’t have his players in full pads until the sixth workout. Over-30 veterans were given two days off in the first seven practices.
And all that after a shortened offseason.
“Just because they are not practicing for the amount of time, right, the three hours or whatever, two and a half hours,” Sirianni said, “with the walk-throughs, we are full speed mentally.”
Some new coaches like to set a high bar in their first camps. Dick Vermeil famously grinded multiple players into quitting the Eagles in his first few seasons. Andy Reid’s early camps included live tackling in both ends of two-a-days. He had his share of players disappear without a word from Lehigh University.
Even Doug Pederson, as recently as six years ago, pushed his players beyond a third hour on occasion. But the former Eagles coach’s camps got easier and easier after the Super Bowl-winning season of 2017. Some of that was in response to playing late into the postseason.
The team’s new medical and training staffs, though, started to implement a more proactive approach to rehabilitation, one based on tracking workloads, and modeled after some NBA and Premier League organizations.
But the NFL plays 80% fewer games than the NBA and its offseason is significantly longer than the Premier League. There isn’t a league-wide consensus on how to handle player health, though.
Football is a physical sport and injuries are just part of the equation. There’s little a team can do about broken bones or torn ligaments. But the number of games lost to injury has steadily increased in the NFL over the last decade or so, and the Eagles have been among the most injured in recent years.
Last season, they ranked 30th out of 32 NFL teams in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost to injury. In the last three seasons, only the 49ers and New York Jets have more combined games lost.
“I can’t speak to what happened here in the past,” Sirianni said when asked if the length of his practices were in response to the Eagles’ previous injury woes. “I just know that we have experts.. … I don’t go in and run the workouts in the room. It’s just leaning on the people that this great organization has provided for me.”
Roseman tried to address the injury woes last offseason and hired Tom Hunkele as vice president of sports medicine/head athletic trainer and Ted Rath as vice president of player performance. But their successes with their previous teams didn’t translate in 2020.
Ultimately, Hunkele and Rath report to Roseman, as does Arsh Donata, the Eagles’ chief medical officer and head team physician. And to some in the organization, past and present, his heavy hand during camp and the preseason set the tone for the rest of the last three seasons.
“There were always issues with Howie not understanding the value of practice reps,” a former Eagles staffer said. “Any guy that had an injury he’d always be saying, ‘You’ll have him by Week 1.’ And oftentimes the guys got zero practice and they were expected to perform well immediately on returning.”
There is often a tension that exists between training and coaching staffs. Roseman is likely just following the lead of his medical experts. But it appears the Eagles have gone even further in their light-handed approach to August.
Sirianni’s practices haven’t been cakewalks. The tempo has been there for the most part. The workouts, if anything, have been closer to Chip Kelly’s when he coached the Eagles. To preserve time, some team drills have been held at the same time on opposite fields. There is also little standing around.
And there’s something to be said for player happiness.
“I love that they’re not three hours long,” Eagles running back Miles Sanders said about the shorter practices.
He also said that one benefit has been more recovery time.
But the training room isn’t “Leisure World” as Reid used to say. Players have to get back on the field at some point. And sooner is almost always better than later.