It’s indisputable. The 2015 Patriots season was hijacked and run aground by injuries.
While plenty of teams around the NFL could say, “Yeah, so? Ours was too,” the dominance of the Patriots before Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, Jamie Collins, Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower went down for extended periods was astounding. And even with the injuries that left the offensive line pockmarked, the Patriots still came within two points of getting to the Super Bowl.
According to the website ManGamesLost, the Patriots missed 245 games due to injury in 2015.
The two most costly injuries in terms of “impact to team approximate value” in the NFL were Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman. Collins was deemed the 11th most costly injury, Bryan Stork was 29th, Hightower was 50th and Solder 90th. We could easily quibble with those rankings but the 245 games lost is a hard number that really can’t be parsed any finer.
How’s it coming so far? Currently, the Patriots have lost 60 “man games” due to injury -- 20th in the NFL. At this juncture last year, they’d lost 72 and were sixth overall.
I asked Bill Belichick during his Sunday conference call and he confirmed it’s better.
“Relative to where we were a year ago, there is a significant improvement,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able to maintain that through the second half of the season when we ran into some trouble last year. I think we’ve always worked hard. We’ve tried every year to work a little bit harder, try to do things a little bit better, and hopefully some of those little things are paying off.
“I know the players work extremely hard on their training as well as their nutrition, hydration, rest, recovery, all the things that go into performance,” Belichick added. “We’re always looking to fine tune those for each individual because they’re all different. We all have different makeups and different little things that can help different players in unique ways, so always trying to stay on top of that. I think our staff has done a good job and the players have done a good job, so hopefully we’ll be able to continue that over the next eight regular season games.”
At the end of last season, I asked Belichick about how the team would proceed in the 2016 offseason when it came to looking at why injuries occurred and he said, “We will look at everything.”
The adjustments are subtle but can be observed. A big tray of sandwiches and protein/nutrition drinks is routinely parked in the middle of the locker room for players to partake in. Last week, assistant strength coach Sammy Morris was seen collecting glowing plastic transmitters from players who’d had them embedded in their jerseys during practice to track activity, heartrate, etc. The heavy-duty practice the team runs has often been Thursday this season as opposed to Wednesday.
Belichick says the improvement’s borne out on Sundays when the team makes its decision on who’ll play.
“Looking back over last year, many of the inactives that we had, there was really no decision to make,” he explained. “They just weren’t available, so they were inactive. This year, we’ve had very few of those situations. The majority of our inactives every week are based on having to select the players that we think will be able to contribute the most to the upcoming game. There are usually, three, four or five guys on the inactive list that, if they were at the game, they would play and they would help us, but we can’t have them.
“In previous years, a lot of those players were just out of the game, couldn’t play, so there was really no consideration,” he added. “There wasn’t really a lot to dispute on. The decision was minimal, whereas this year, that really hasn’t been the case. The seven inactives, maybe five, six of them, whatever the number is, whatever it averages out to be, are guys that could play, would help us, and then it’s just this player versus another player, which player has the most value for that game. It’s actually a good problem, a good conversation to have, a good situation to be in, but it’s a lot different than – going back through my notes, especially in games we played last year. You kind of look at where you were last year in that game and we’ve fortunately been in a different place in many of these games this year. We’ll see if that continues, hopefully it will.”
In a collision sport where a player will routinely find himself in compromising positions while carrying out his duty, some injuries are wholly unpreventable. But the severity of them can sometimes be mitigated if maximum flexibility is achieved by resistance training or players wear protective gear (knee braces for every offensive lineman, for instance).
The injuries that can and should be held to a minimum? Muscle pulls, strains and tears.
“The thing we try to concentrate the most on are the injuries that we feel are most preventable and those being predominantly soft tissue injuries that are a function of training and hydration and nutrition, rest, and things like that,” said Belichick. “A broken bone or an impact hit that causes a problem, it’s hard to prevent those. Some of those are going to happen, although I do think there is an element of training that comes into play there, too. But non-contact injuries, injuries that occur from, again, pulled muscle, from dehydration or fatigue or whatever happens, those are the ones that I think as a coach and as a staff you look back on and say, ‘Could we have done things differently there?’ So yes, some of that involves the individual player, his specific body composition and skill set and demands, and some of it is probably the training that we put him through and so forth, and how we best prepare the players for the workloads that they’re going to have on game day. It’s a long conversation and one that we’ve spent a lot of time on.”
As they should. Because it’s everything.