With news breaking that Packers offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga had suffered a torn ACL during the team's intra-squad scrimmage on Saturday, attention is back on the high number of injuries that have occurred in Green Bay the past couple of seasons.
Every few weeks I have fans ask me about the effectiveness of the Packers training staff. They can't help but see the inordinately high number of injuries sustained the past couple seasons and wonder about the underlying cause.
I've always wanted to dig deeper into this topic, but it's not exactly an easy one to uncover. The Packers don't typically make their team trainer and physician available to the media, so it's not a subject oft-discussed.
This past January I had an opportunity to attend the NFL's Health and Safety press conference at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. I finally had the chance to ask an expert about evaluating the quality of a professional sports training staff.
One Medical Opinion
My window of opportunity was limited. I had less than two minutes to talk to Dr. Anthony Yates, team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers and president of the NFL's Physicians Society, so I wanted to get right to the point.
"How would you know when a training staff would not be doing a good job?" I asked. "Are there certain injuries, certain indications that say, 'Something's not right here'?"
"That's a pretty unfair question," responded Yates. "We all practice medicine with certain parameters and certain goals and certain protocols to follow, and if they're not followed, we get concerned. There's no real specific answer to your question. It's a body of work, I would think."
My intention was not to place blame on the Packers training staff, nor did it escape me that I was asking about a sensitive topic. I simply didn't want to let a rare opportunity pass me by. I certainly didn't mean to be rude, but I did want to ask direct, pointed questions.
I pressed on, asking if nagging injuries such as pulls, sprains or strains could be indicative of a training staff's ability to prevent injury.
Obviously I was influenced by the Packers' rash of hamstring problems last year. They ranged from Desmond Bishop's tear during a preseason game to less serious pulls that were the cause of 10 players being listed on the team's injury report at one time or another in 2012.
Among the high-profile players that missed regular season playing time due to hamstring injuries, linebacker Clay Matthews and wide receiver Jordy Nelson both missed four games and fullback John Kuhn missed two games.
"Those are clusters of injuries, just like there can be three quarterbacks in one week that get concussed," said Yates, referring to Week 10 of the season last year when Jay Cutler, Mike Vick and Alex Smith all suffered concussions. "It doesn't mean that there's a pathologic pattern of foot.
"I think you have to step back and look at the whole training program. It's not just the trainer, there's the strength and conditioning folks, there's individuals that are managing the player outside the realm of a football team, they do seek their own therapy. So it takes a lot of research to decide what or if we should be concerned in our colleagues, be it athletic trainer or fellow physicians or people that read X-rays for us, or second opinions or surgeons and so on."
These were fair answers from Yates. No doubt about it, a training staff can't be held liable for every single injury incurred by professional football team. It's a physical game, injuries happen.
I had time to ask one more question, and I asked how a training staff is evaluated.
"Each and of their own, they're all certified, they're all graduates, they've proven themselves through time," said Yates. "There's not too many rookie professional athletic trainers."
That was his entire answer, which in retrospect raises an eyebrow. Based on his response, there doesn't appear to be a whole lot of checks and balances occurring in the football health and safety community.
Perhaps it's no surprise that 78 percent of players polled don't trust their team's medical staff, according to a players' union study.
Packers Training Staff Praised
Back in April, Packers trainer Pepper Burruss was honored with the Fain-Cain Memorial Award as the league's trainer of the year by the NFL Physicians' Society.
Two years earlier, Dr. Patrick McKenzie was recognized with with the Jerry “Hawk” Rhea Award, given to the league’s physician of the year by Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (PFATS).
Anybody that closely follows the Packers knows about their unusually high amount of injuries, particularly in 2010 and 2012 seasons.
According to statistics kept by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Packers led the NFL with 91 starts missed due to injury in 2010. Five starters were placed on injured reserve and nine players started all 16 games.
At the time, those 91 starts missed were the fourth-most in the NFL since 2000, surpassed only by the 105 by the Tennessee Titans in 2004 and the 103 by the 2005 San Francisco 49ers and 2009 Buffalo Bills.
After a comparatively healthy 2011, the Packers again led the NFL in starts missed due to injury with 83 in 2012. Gosselin reported that four starters landed on injured reserve and only eight players started all 16 games.
In addition to the starters, 16 players in total were placed on injured reserve in 2010. The Packers went on to win six consecutive games to close out that season, and won four consecutive playoff games, all away from home, including Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nine more players landed on injured reserve in 2012 and the number could have reached ten had the team decided they would have needed a roster spot to replace defensive lineman Jerel Worthy on the roster after he tore his ACL in a Week 17 game.
Perhaps it's because of the Packers ability to succeed in spite of their recent rash of injuries that Burruss and McKenzie have been awarded their profession's highest honor.
“It gets people’s attention,” Burruss told thePackers official websitein April. “But you don’t want the award to be ‘the most injured’ award.”
The Road Ahead
As for the season at hand, 16 players sat out of Saturday's scrimmage with varying degrees of injuries. Add Bulaga and tight end Ryan Taylor who suffered injuries during the scrimmage itself.
Where the Packers go from here will be worth watching as the 2013 plays itself out. They'll be counting on some combination of Marshall Newhouse, Don Barclay and David Bahktiari to get them through the season at the tackle positions.
The healthy return of Derek Sherrod from a devastating broken leg in 2011 would be a welcome addition but cannot be guaranteed.
Observers will also be monitoring the health of other players nursing injuries such as Nelson (knee), cornerbacks Tramon Williams (knee) and Casey Hayward (hamstring) and defensive lineman Mike Neal (abdomen).
Mike McCarthy has already said that Nelson's knee issue is a re-occurrence of an injury from previous seasons. And Neal has been injury-prone ever since being drafted in 2010, playing in only in 20 out of a possible 48 regular season games due to shoulder and knee injuries.
There's a long way to go before the story is written on the 2013 Packers and what they achieve. They have yet to play even their first exhibition game.
But many will be waiting to see whether Bulaga's injury is merely an outlier in 2013 or the continuation of a trend.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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