Ravens center Matt Skura recovers from season-ending knee injury. Video courtesy of his trainer Jay Johnson
Before the NFL’s voluntary workout programs began in April, the league addressed the difficulty of working out amid a pandemic. Players, stuck at home, were provided a $1,500 stipend to purchase the equipment necessary for workouts. If they couldn’t go to a gym, they could at least have kettlebells and resistance bands.
The question of how to prepare for the rigors of a full NFL season has shaped an offseason already warped by the coronavirus. With no organized team activities or minicamp, the Ravens missed out on 13 in-person practices. A virtual offseason program took playbook study to Zoom conference calls and team workouts to remote livestream sessions.
Now, as the specter of COVID-19 hangs over the start of training camps later this month, there’s a fear that the pandemic could lead to an epidemic of soft-tissue injuries. NFL Players Association president and Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter noted in a post Tuesday that in 2011, when a work stoppage scrapped OTAs and minicamp, the number of injuries surged by 25%, with Achilles tendon injuries more than doubling.
The Ravens — for now, anyway — are in “excellent shape,” as coach John Harbaugh said last month. Safety DeShon Elliott and cornerback Tavon Young are working out without restrictions. Even center Matt Skura, still recovering from November’s season-ending knee injury, has passed the team’s vaunted conditioning test.
But coaches across the league have acknowledged that, without seeing players in person, offseason evaluations are difficult. Because of coronavirus restrictions and limited access to gyms, players will return to camp on uneven ground. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said on the “PFT PM” podcast Wednesday that in 2011, locked-out players could train wherever and however they needed to. This offseason, “there’s guys that are in different situations all around the league.”
“I think that’s the biggest concern from the players’ standpoint, besides the obvious health concerns with COVID itself: the injury rate and figuring out where guys’ bodies have been,” Watt said. “Have they been running at full speed? Have they been cutting? Have they been making those high-impact moves that you have to make to play the game of football, which is where a lot of those injuries come from?
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“I mean, you look back at 2011, at some of those injuries — hamstring pulls, Achilles tears — those are injuries that happen because you haven’t been able to do what you need to do at that highest level. This year, with the circumstances we’re at, we just want to make sure guys aren’t put in a compromised situation purely because we want to start on the set date.”
There’s still uncertainty over just what the next two months will look like. After the NFL trimmed teams’ preseason schedule from four games to two, the NFLPA Board of Player Representatives unanimously voted against playing any preseason games this season, saying the league has provided no medical reason for holding them. The players’ union also wants a 48-day training camp schedule, which it considers a safer ramp-up to the season.
While injuries are inevitable, they remain mostly unpredictable. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked second best in Football Outsiders’ “adjusted games lost” metric last season after finishing No. 30 in 2018. The New York Jets, meanwhile, went from above average to “the second-most injured team we’ve ever found,” according to the analytics website.
Still, the Ravens appear well prepared for the challenges ahead. When the NFL’s virtual offseason began in late April, they were one of just seven teams incorporating workouts into their program. Harbaugh said last month that he’s heard “so many good reports” from his strength and conditioning staff about how the team has fared in its socially distanced workouts. Even Ravens director of sports nutrition Sarah Snyder has helped from afar, checking in with players about their diets and offering tips on an Instagram account she created.
But football is a contact sport, and this season is expected to unfold amid a public health crisis. If and when injuries or infections strike, the Ravens happen to have one of the league’s deepest rosters, with Pro Bowl players on offense, defense and special teams. Their preseason plan, at its core, is the same as it’s always been: Make the most of what time they have, as safely and efficiently as possible.
“It’s like, ‘What can we work on [and] make sure that we’re good at?’ " Harbaugh said. “Try to make as few mistakes as we can, in terms of wasting time, because it’s going to be a pretty short ramp-up to the season. There’s going to be some acclimation for the players. … How much will we have to do to build them up to a full-speed practice when we get back to camp? We’ll have to see.”