INDIANAPOLIS – Mike McCarthy is not a doctor. He doesn’t play one on the football field.
However, after the multitude of injuries his team has endured in the last four years, the Green Bay Packers coach is able to play one at home with sons George and Jack and daughters Gabrielle and Isabella.
“I feel like I’ve looked at enough MRIs and sat in enough of those meetings,” McCarthy said in an interview at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown during a break in the annual NFL Scouting Combine Friday afternoon. “It’s funny, now when the kids get hurt, they all want me to look at it. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I tell them to tape it and ice it and they think it’s real good stuff.”
All kidding aside, McCarthy knows he can’t fake it with his football team, which has suffered such an inordinate amount of injuries that for the second straight offseason, he intends to do some serious investigating in hopes of finding ways to prevent them.
The Packers ended to 2013 season with 15 players on injured reserve, matching the total they had during their improbable 2010 run to the Super Bowl XLV title. In addition, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who missed six games (including playoffs) and parts of two others with a broken right thumb he originally fractured on Oct. 6, was never placed on injured reserve but never played again after breaking the thumb for a second time on Dec. 22.
Among the other Packers who missed significant time last season with injuries were starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee suffered during the Family Night Scrimmage on Aug. 3; cornerback Casey Hayward, who missed all but three games with a hamstring pull that first occurred while working out on his own before camp; wide receiver Randall Cobb, who missed 10 games with a small fracture at the top of the tibia in his right leg after a low hit by Baltimore safety Matt Elam in an Oct. 13 game against the Ravens; and tight end Jermichael Finley, who suffered a season-ending bruised spinal cord on Oct. 20 against Cleveland.
Oh, and one more: That quarterback of theirs, Aaron Rodgers, he missed essentially eight games with the fractured left collarbone he sustained Nov. 4 against Chicago.
As he sat at the NFC Coaches Breakfast at the annual NFL Meetings in Phoenix last March, McCarthy vowed to get to the bottom of the team’s injury problems and find a way to prevent them.
He admitted Friday that he, and the team, failed.
In his annual study of injuries, Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin listed the Packers as the sixth-most injured team in the NFL in 2013, based on the 70 games missed by preferred starters. The New York Giants led the NFL with 91 games missed by starters, while the New York Jets had the fewest with just 20.
Based on Gosselin’s rankings, the Packers have lost an astronomical 153 games by starters to injury over the last two seasons, the most in the league.
In 2012, no club was more decimated by injuries than the Packers, whose starters lost 83 games to injury. Only eight players managed to start all 16 games, and four starters landed on season-ending injured reserve. Their 2012 season ended with an NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers – the team which, coincidentally, lost the fewest games to injury that year.
In 2010, the Packers lost a league-high 91 games from their preferred starters due to injuries – and still won the NFL title. In 2011, when the Packers won their first 13 games and finished an NFL-best and franchise-record 15-1, they tied for 15 th in the most starters’ games lost to injury with 51.
All told, in Gosselin’s rankings, the Packers have averaged 53.3 starters games missed during McCarthy’s tenure (2006 through 2013). In that eight-year window, only the Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts have lost more games to injury than Green Bay.
Is that bad luck? A conservative medical staff that holds players out when other teams may not? Problems in training or other issues that are causing the spike?
“Our numbers are not good. They’re very poor. And we have to get it changed,” McCarthy said. “It’s a challenge we’ve been running with three of the last four years. The one year we were healthy, we were 15-1. I think it definitely translates.”
Exactly what changes the Packers can make is another matter. With the opening of the team’s new Lambeau Field CRIC facility, which includes a FieldTurf walkthrough area, McCarthy altered the practice schedule at the end of the year and had his team legitimately practice – either inside the Don Hutson Center or at Ray Nitschke Field – only twice per week. The third day of what normally would have been practice was replaced by jogthrough instructional sessions in the CRIC.
Asked if the schedule adjustment was on account of injuries, McCarthy replied, “When we got the new facility, I think that's obvious why changed our practice structure. That's all part of the implementation of taking more time off the field, more classroom work. Our teaching environment is very unique now compared to where it was in the past. That was all part of the plan.”
But when asked if that would be the schedule going forward, McCarthy wouldn’t say.
“I look at the schedule each and every year. I try to get better as a head coach, and obviously scheduling is one of my main responsibilities,” he said. “I'm looking at some different things, but for as much as we paid for that new facility I'm sure we'll be utilizing it.”
General manager Ted Thompson, who played 10 NFL seasons as a special-teams player and substitutional linebacker, doesn’t necessarily believe that the team could do more to prevent injuries, saying the club has done “significant digging” into the problem with team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie and his staff, searching for cause-and-effect.
“We do intensive evaluations with Dr. McKenzie and our medical staff and our strength and conditioning people. Mike has done a lot of different things in the offseason and during the season practice trying to work on that, trying to adjust those things,” Thompson said. “It’s not an exact science. Things happen. Guys step in a hole, trip somewhere. Some of the injuries we had, you can’t really explain them. It wasn’t like, ‘Gosh, we did something wrong here.’ It was just bad luck. Sometimes, you have that and you just have to try to keep plugging away.
“Nobody likes injuries. Nobody likes to talk about them. But they happen. We do try to evaluate what we’ve done and if we need to try to tweak something or change something, it makes us a little bit better.”
McCarthy said he and the medical staff separate injuries into two categories: Impact injuries, and fatigue injuries. Matthews’ thumb, Cobb’s leg, Finley’s spinal cord – those were impact injuries that McCarthy considers unavoidable. Hayward’s hamstring? In the coach’s opinion, preventable.
“Obviously you live with the impact injuries. We had three injuries to the spine (to Finley, running back Johnathan Franklin and defensive end Johnny Jolly) this year. That’s astronomical for one season,” McCarthy said. “The fatigue injuries are the ones you just have to really reduce the best you can. That’s where the games that are being missed [make you ask], ‘Who’s doing it better?’ Because that’s, if your opponents’ numbers are much better than yours, then obviously you’re playing uphill there.”
McCarthy acknowledged having read the New York Times story about Stanford University director of football sports performance Shannon Turley, whose unconventional training methods have reduced the Cardinal’s injury count significantly. But altering how his players work out is only one change McCarthy is mulling.
“I think you’ve got to stay realistic and practical about it, and I think the reality of all this is everybody has a stake in it,” he said. “Everybody has to look hard at the stake that they have in it. And I’m talking about myself with scheduling and training of the team, the stress points in the scheduling, the nutrition, the weight training, the training room – a lot of conversation there. But at the end of the day, it ultimately comes down to the individual’s accountability and availability too. You have to look at all those components.
“The injuries going to happen. But not only [is it a question of] how you prevent them, but once they do happen, how do you get them back quicker? That, to me, that’s the part we’ve got to get right. … You can crunch all the numbers, but at the end of the day, you’ve got [to examine] who’s having the injuries, why are they having them, when are they having them, what are they doing when they’re away from work? All that stuff.”
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