Reconditioning: The Eagles’ Latest Sports Science Focus
Back in March, Chip Kelly was asked about the wisdom in trading for Sam Bradford, a quarterback who had played just seven games in the previous two seasons because of injuries.
Kelly’s response, coupled with the other moves he’s made this offseason, seem to indicate that he believes the Eagles may have a competitive edge when it comes to gambling on players coming off of injury.
“The history right now in terms of sports science and what doctors are doing now has moved forward,” Kelly said. “It’s unbelievable. Look at the year Jeremy Maclin had coming off of two ACLs. Look at our center. Jason Kelce came off an ACL when I first got there, had a sports hernia surgery in the middle of the season and still made the Pro Bowl. Our left tackle [Jason Peters] who’s arguably a Hall of Famer is coming off of two Achilles’ and has played at an outstanding level.”
The Eagles have not been scared off from targeting injured players this offseason. Ryan Mathews played just six games last year. Walter Thurmond has appeared in six games or fewer in three of his five NFL seasons. Miles Austin has missed 15 games the past four seasons. And there’s Bradford, as well.
The team guards its sports science methods like they’re matters of national security. But earlier this offseason, the Eagles quietly changed Shaun Huls’ title from sports science coordinator to director of sports science and reconditioning. The team declined to make Huls available for this story, and he has not spoken with the media since being hired, but Kelly has talked about reconditioning.
“When we’re taking these guys coming off injuries, I think one of the things, when guys get injured, you spend a lot of time concentrating on just rehabbing the knee,” he said. “But it also means that you’ve got to take care of the arms, you’ve got to take care of the cardiovascular, you’ve got to take care of a lot of other things besides just that specific rehab for that particular injury. Not only do you rehab the injury, you also have to recondition the body.”
Bill Knowles is the director of reconditioning and athletic development at HP Sports in Wayne, Pa. He has no affiliation with the Eagles, but he has worked with athletes and teams around the world, preaching the importance of reconditioning.
The basic premise is that rehab focuses on treating one specific injury. Reconditioning is a bigger picture concept that focuses on making sure the injured athlete is ready to perform at 100 percent when he/she returns to competition.
“The medical model, it’s very simple to look at it and say they will typically treat the injury, but they don’t necessarily prepare the athlete,” Knowles explained.
“We should still be moving them in the same ways, and we should be coaching them the same way. We just need to alter the intensity, alter the load on those guys. You have to alter the approach. While you respect the healing structures, you have to make sure you don’t underestimate the value of keeping these guys moving and looking athletic.
“Reconditioning, what it does is the mindset is to say let’s make sure we get all departments working together simultaneously. So your surgeon, sports medicine doctor, your athletic trainers, your therapists and your sports scientists, strength coach, nutritionist, psychologist, that everyone becomes involved immediately to contribute what they can contribute in their own areas of expertise. But everyone is involved.”
By focusing on preparing the athletes for competition and not just rehabbing the injuries, advocates of reconditioning believe athletes should be able to perform at a higher level when they return and should also be less susceptible to re-injury.
Because of those goals, reconditioning may end up resulting in a longer process before the athlete returns from injury.
“Coming back from knee injuries, many high school kids out there, they get back to running fairly soon after knee injuries, ACL injuries, like say 12 weeks,” Knowles said. “But running isn’t about stopping or decelerating. It’s just about running. You can start running, start with a half-mile, go up to a mile, go up to two miles. But the injury occurs in stopping or cutting. So what we often will say is, ‘You’re not allowed to do cutting exercises until say five months after the injury.’ But you can get cleared to go back to play soccer at six months after the injury. Cutting is the exercise that causes the injury to happen most of the time. Yet it’s the exercise that we spend the least amount of time practicing and developing before an athlete goes back to competition.
“So a performance coach would look at this and say, ‘This isn’t right. This athlete is not fully prepared to decelerate or cut.’ Yet they’re being cleared because they’ve been doing a lot of running. They are six months after the surgery. …But a performance coach would typically say, ‘No, no, no. We haven’t trained this guy in cutting, change of direction, and he or she just isn’t strong enough.
“Once you’ve decided that the athlete is 100 percent or the athlete is normal, when you get to that place, that isn’t when you say play. That’s when you say, ‘OK, now we have the athlete back to just what is normal. Now we need to almost have like a preseason.’ Now you need four to six weeks at normal [hypothetically, for a knee injury] just to give ‘em a chance to have the exposures of bad things like slipping, tripping, someone banging into them that they didn’t know was going to bang into them, some guy grabbing you at the knee and twisting you as you go down in training. These things happen. But if you don’t have enough practice days and you don’t get enough exposures to bad things that could happen to you, then you haven’t developed resiliency, tolerance to tough things to your joint.”
Eagles players believe there’s also a mental aspect to reconditioning. Linebacker Najee Goode suffered a torn pectoral muscle in Week 1 of 2014, but now is participating fully in OTAs.
“The main thing it meant to me was just keeping my mind sharp since I couldn’t be out there physically… being here with the team, staying fresh on top of everything,” he said. “And reconditioning the brain along with the rehab went hand in hand, so mentally and physically.”
Added wide receiver Josh Huff: “I’ve had plenty of injuries throughout my time playing under Chip. My first time I got injured with him was my freshman year of college, and I missed all of fall camp. That time I missed, I was on the sideline each and every day, just looking at the plays and getting a mental picture of what everyone did on the field.”
At practice, injured Eagles are still asked to participate in a limited capacity. They continue to attend meetings and are encouraged to be at the team facility as much as possible.
“Some guys I’ve talked to [on other teams], they do different things as far as going home, they rehab other places,” Goode said. “We pretty much stay here. We did everything here and just stayed with the same process.”
When the Eagles suffered injuries at inside linebacker last season, Goode felt like he was ready to come back in December. But he had already been placed on injured reserve. The idea of spending a longer time on reconditioning might not sit well with certain athletes or coaches, but looking back, Goode now appreciates the process.
“Since I am a younger player and hopefully got everything in front of me, that’s one thing I’m taking along,” he said. “I’ve got a longer career after this, and I definitely want to contribute and not have to worry about it anymore.”
There’s certainly an argument to be made for buying low on injured players. But that doesn’t really apply to the Eagles’ methods. They gave up Nick Foles and a second rounder for Bradford. They gave Austin $1 million in guaranteed money. Looking at the injured players they signed, it’s difficult to find any that came at a discounted rate.
But Kelly clearly sees value in giving injured players another chance in Philadelphia with the Eagles’ sports science system in place.
“We don’t want to bring in injured players, but I think the players that are available, there has to be a reason,” he explained. “Some guys are available because it’s a money reason, and you don’t have the cap room, or you’re not willing to go that high for that individual player. And some players are available because there was an injury.”
Speaking specifically about Bradford, he added: “There are not many people in this league that are not injured at that position, and then it’s your ability to come back. If you talk about the Saints, I think their revival and what happened down there was their acquisition of Drew Brees, who, like a lot of people, failed in a medical. But I think maybe [some teams] just didn’t do enough due diligence in terms of counting Drew Brees out. Give Sean Payton credit and Mickey Loomis credit. They didn’t count Drew Brees out, and look how it paid off for them. That’s some of the chances you have to take.”