The Eagles believe holding fewer practices leads to fewer injuries. Enter abbreviated OTAs.
Looking to capitalize on last season’s improved health, the Eagles and coach Nick Sirianni are having just six on-field workouts over the next two weeks.
When the Eagles convene Tuesday for their first organized team activity, they will be just one of two NFL teams to hold as few as six practices and no mandatory minicamp this spring.
Not only will they be practicing less, but also the workouts will be shorter in length and less arduous. The Eagles have been scaling back for the last several years, both in the offseason and in-season, but there was a significant downsizing in Nick Sirianni’s first season as coach.
They are taking that premise a step further in his second year.
While the pandemic canceled OTAs last year, Sirianni is having just six on-field workouts over the next two weeks when he could have as many as 13 over four weeks — 10 voluntary practices with a three-day mandatory minicamp.
The reason is straightforward: The Eagles believe that fewer and less intense practices will keep their players healthier, and point to last year’s dramatic improvement in number of games lost to injury as likely confirmation.
“Everything that we do is going to be thought out with the players’ health and safety in mind first,” Sirianni said last month when asked about the Eagles’ comparatively tame spring schedule. “That was one thing we felt like we did a good job last year, of staying healthy for different reasons and different thoughts and everybody’s voices going into it.
“I have to make the final decision, but we really felt like we benefited from some of those things that we did last year [in] the time length.”
The Eagles did more than just cancel practices, shorten their length, and eliminate live tackling drills last training camp. They increased the number of days off for over-30 veterans, and limited the starters’ snaps in preseason games, choosing controlled joint practices with other teams as alternative preparation for the regular season.
And as the season wore on, Sirianni substituted walk-throughs — “full speed,” he called the simulated workouts — for practices in pads that are typically held on Wednesdays. The Eagles were able to increase repetitions, according to their coach, but the walk-throughs were mostly meant to lessen the load on players’ bodies.
The Eagles still endured their share of season-ending injuries. Defensive end Brandon Graham, guard Brandon Brooks, and guard Isaac Seumalo, for example, suffered an Achilles tendon rupture, torn pectoral muscle, and Lisfranc foot fracture, respectively, early last season. Some losses are unavoidable.
But the Eagles were able to decrease the number of lower-body, soft-tissue injuries that had plagued the team during the 2018-20 seasons. They had just six players miss a total of 11 games in the 2021 season, even with the additional game, compared with 19 players who missed 49 games the previous season.
A welcome change
The overall numbers were just as good. The Eagles had 76 adjusted games lost to injury, according to Football Outsiders’ annual analysis of weekly injury reports, an improvement of 52.1 games over the previous season. They finished only 12th in the NFL, but considering they ranked 30th, 21st, and 32nd from 2018-20 and only the 49ers and New York Jets lost more games to injury over that span, it was a welcome development.
The Eagles aren’t exactly tooting their horns. General manager Howie Roseman, even though he oversees the medical, training, and sports science departments, would only endorse Sirianni’s comments when asked about the potential correlation between modified practices and the team’s overall better health last month.
He also declined to be interviewed for this story. Roseman understands as well as anyone in the NFL that there are many factors at play when it comes to contact sports and injuries. Fortune, or a lack thereof, may have as much to do with a team’s wellness as anything.
One relatively healthy season is also hardly enough of a sample size to say the Eagles have it figured out. They were for many years among the healthiest of teams in the league. And when former coach Chip Kelly was hired and brought with him a trailblazing sports science staff, the Eagles finished second, fifth, and sixth in Football Outsiders’ rankings.
They finished fourth the following year and 13th in 2017, even though there were notable season-ending injuries during that Super Bowl-winning season. But a series of events, some unfortunate, some deliberate, and some dubious, seemingly led to an unprecedented number of injuries following the Eagles’ title.
Head physicians Peter DeLuca and Gary Dorsheimer were not retained, and head athletic trainer Chris Peduzzi left. Roseman’s initial replacements didn’t pan out, however. Whether he placed responsibility for the uptick in injuries, and the questionable handling of several, on physician Stephen Stache, trainer Jerome Reid, and director of rehabilitation Shireen Mansoori, remains unclear.
But Stache was replaced by Arsh Dhanota, who was named chief medical officer and head team physician in 2019, Reid was demoted and succeeded by Tom Hunkele in 2020, and Mansoori’s contract ran out.
The Eagles made other staffing alterations below Dhanota and Hunkele, but it likely took time for the changes in leadership and methodology to take root, with last year being the first notable sign of improvement.
Of the changes, the most outward has been the reduction in training, a proactive approach based on tracking workloads by GPS. Every NFL team uses the tracking devices, though not all believe that fewer, less strenuous practices will make players less likely to suffer injuries.
The Chiefs, for instance, still subscribe to the philosophy that football players need to prepare their bodies for the rigors of the season, even during it. Rick Burkholder, formerly the Eagles’ head trainer, followed Andy Reid to Kansas City, which has long been one of the healthier teams and placed first in Football Outsiders’ 2021 rankings.
Reid and many other veteran coaches have still had to adjust to the modernization of football. Two-a-day practices are long gone. Few teams tackle to the ground in training camp. Spring workouts are essentially passing practices. Sirianni said the Eagles won’t even have 11-on-11 drills during OTAs.
“We are not going to see those this year,” he said. “I think you guys know we have two weeks of OTAs and look forward to getting a lot of good work done with our individual [drills] where we can work on our fundamentals.
“Then we’ll be doing seven-on-seven because it helps our skill guys and quarterback in making the read and different looks he’s going to get.”
Still, the large majority of teams took full advantage of the allotted amount of practice time. The Cincinnati Bengals were the only other team to have as few OTAs and to skip minicamp like the Eagles.
“There’s pros and cons with both,” Eagles running back Boston Scott said last week. “Work is work. Getting reps in is good, but it’s also important at this level to maintain the body. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have your guys going into the first game of the season.”
Last year, Eagles starters hardly played in the preseason. Quarterback Jalen Hurts didn’t take a single snap. Intersquad practices with the New England Patriots and New York Jets were deemed sufficient. The Eagles won their opener over the Atlanta Falcons convincingly but lost five of their next six games.
Did the lack of preseason time have anything to do with the 2-5 start? Who knows? But the Eagles are expected to take a similar approach this preseason with joint sessions scheduled with the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins ahead of games.
The Eagles had only one starter — safety Anthony Harris — miss a game last season with a listed soft-tissue injury, though. Did it help that perennially muscle-strained veterans like Jason Peters, DeSean Jackson, and Alshon Jeffery weren’t brought back last season? Perhaps.
But labeling players as “injury-prone” can be defamatory. Certainly, there are those who don’t take the necessary precautions or those who have a lower tolerance for playing through pain. GMs like Roseman must always factor health into personnel decisions.
Landon Dickerson suffered four major injuries in college — torn ACLs in both knees and significant sprains to both ankles — and was able to finish just one of his five seasons at Florida State and Alabama.
The Eagles, nevertheless, drafted the offensive lineman in the second round, believing privately that their sports medicine and performance department’s progressive methods could ready Dickerson for the season and keep him healthy throughout.
The same thinking likely went into drafting oft-injured linebacker Nakobe Dean last month.
Dickerson was ready by Week 2, jumped in for Brooks midway through the 49ers game, and didn’t miss a start his entire rookie season. He noted late last season that a lesser number of practices was the biggest difference between the NFL and college — not that he was complaining.
“The NFL season is longer than the college season, obviously,” Dickerson said earlier this month. “As guys get older, especially some of the veterans we have on the team, I think it’s beneficial for everybody to transition to those more mental reps more than anything.
“A lot of these older guys, they’ve been playing a long time. They know what it takes to block guys, play in games. I think whenever you get later on into the season, giving guys rest, having their bodies healthy and recovering is a good thing.”
The Eagles are resting players earlier, though, earlier than ever before.