KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Chiefs coach Todd Haley has been reluctant to put pads on his players the first two weeks of training camp, unsure what kind of condition they arrived in after the NFL lockout wiped away the offseason. He scrapped any sort of scrimmage prior to their first preseason game for the same reason.
Gazing around the league, Haley’s cautious approach is making him look like a genius.
Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara will miss about two months after breaking his foot, and fellow first-rounder Nick Fairley of the Detroit Lions is out most of camp after his own foot surgery. Detroit’s second-round draft pick, running back Mikel Leshoure, is done for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon on Monday — the 10th player to sustain the same season-ending injury since the lockout ended and players went back to work.
Now, every time someone gets banged up, it begs the question: Is the lockout to blame?
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Haley said. “That’s why, for the most part, we’ve been doing things as we’ve been doing them, which is one day at a time and doing the best job we can as a staff, evaluating our guys a number of different ways. And we always evaluate the physical readiness of guys.”
That evaluation is in hyperdrive with the first preseason games scheduled for Thursday night. All the coaches have been balancing uncomfortably between getting players conditioned while at the same time protecting them from injury.
“I think there’s 32 different answers to how coaches and players are approaching this,” said Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFL Players’ Association’s medical director. “(The lockout) has really changed the dynamic.”
Along with Leshoure, players who have sustained season-ending Achilles injuries include Browns punter Reggie Hodges, who took a snap in the end zone, took one step and dropped like a sack of flour; Eagles defensive end Victor Abiamiri, who underwent surgery Wednesday in Philadelphia; and the Bengals’ Roddrick Muckelroy, a second-year linebacker and one of their top special teams players.
“That’s just part of football,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “It’s hard, but you just hope that you can stay injury-free. Teams that make a run, they’re the ones who stay healthy in the long run.”
To be healthy in the long run, it helps to start healthy.
One of the byproducts of the lockout is that it kept players from meeting with team physicians and using team facilities. That put several high-profile names behind schedule in rehabilitating injuries that are months old.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is the biggest name on the list. The five-time All-Pro could miss all of training camp after surgery May 23 to repair a bulging disc in his neck. Others in a similar situation include Redskins safety LaRon Landry, who has been slow to recover from a non-surgical procedure to his Achilles.
“Any time a guy has an Achilles and is not able to go through rehab with your organization, you feel like there is going to be a setback,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “I think Peyton Manning said the same thing. You’d sure like to be with people that are giving treatment all the time, and we’d like to do it.”
Veteran free agents have only been on the field about a week because language in the collective bargaining agreement kept them away until Aug. 4. In many cases, they’re at different fitness levels than the rest of the guys on the roster who toiled in the heat and humidity of the first week of training camp.
Rookies are at an even greater disadvantage.
Without minicamps and other organized team activities, first-year players have had to adjust to the rigors of the NFL on the fly. Instead of a few hours of film study and practice, like in college, they’re now putting in 12 hours a day at the team facility. And on the practice field, with a much smaller roster size, they may end up running around twice as much.
“Everyone is 20 practices behind,” said former NFL coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. “Does that make a big difference for a veteran? No. Because he knows what to do, how to get his body ready and how to practice. The young rookie doesn’t know the tempo of a pro practice. ... There’s a fatigue factor.”
That fatigue may be to blame for a number of ailments.
Amukamara and Leshoure are the biggest first-year names with significant injuries, but Chiefs wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin has been slowed by a sore leg; Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has a bum hamstring; and Bufffalo cornerback Domonic Brown hurt his knee three days into camp and has since been waived.
“We are trying to be smart about how we practice,” said Bills coach Chan Gailey. “Early in camp, the most anybody goes in a row is three plays, and then as we go on it will be four plays, and then as we go on it will be five plays. So we’re trying to be smart how we practice these guys, to slowly work them in to playing shape.”
The NFL’s new labor deal put an end to grueling two-a-days, with most teams replacing one of the workouts with a less rigorous walkthrough. The easier schedule has given players more time to recover between practices, and put coaches on guard about issues concerning safety and proper conditioning.
“We’ll accumulate data over time to really gauge the impact that the new training camp format is having,” said Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the players’ executive committee. “I’m convinced it’s the smarter approach, and every doctor and trainer I’ve spoken with agrees, as do most coaches.
“But again, only the data over time will tell,” he added. “I’ve asked our trainers to keep me up to speed on reported injuries, missed practices, etcetera, relative to previous camps. I’m also personally monitoring some of the reported injuries from other camps around the league. Seems to me that injuries are way down.”