The Unknown Side of Sports Science

Posted: September 24th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 194 Comments »

Today we’ve got a guest column from Mark Saltveit, the Chip Kelly guru from Oregon. Mark wrote about Sports Science and took a look at an interesting question…are there consequences to all the benefits the Eagles get from that program?

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By Mark Saltveit

There’s a guy in Atlanta who hotwired his kitchen stove so that he could make a proper pizza using the self-cleaning cycle, which gets you up to 800-900º instead of the usual 525º. He melted down a couple of ovens in the process, but today Jeff Varasano’s restaurant is rated as one of America’s “elite 8” pizzerias by Rachel Ray.

Chip Kelly is doing something similar with the Eagles, reinventing the entire training process with amazing results, and it’s hard not to be excited by what he’s getting out of his players. But as injuries pile up, it might be wise to ask whether he’s melting a few ovens himself.

Veteran cornerback Cary Williams got a lot of ridicule for complaining that practices are too hard, and he deserved it. (He apologized yesterday for going public, but didn’t disavow his comments.) Chip Kelly is not the first coach to push his players hard, and he’s not the first one to win by doing it.

Williams’ griping just sounds like excuses from a 29-year guy who seems to have lost a step, and wasn’t that great to begin with. (Nnamdi Asomugha was 30 when his skills quickly deteriorated.) Williams gave up the two longest receptions in Sunday’s game against Washington, and didn’t even practice much last week; he was limited with a hamstring injury. So why was he so tired?

Cary is almost guaranteed to be a free agent next spring. Besides his declining performance and what Chris Wesseling calls “jabbering,” his contract balloons to $8 million in 2015, and the Birds can definitely do better in the free agent market for that kind of money. It’s hard to understand what he thinks he’s accomplishing by announcing that he can’t handle rigorous workouts. It just makes him sound old.

So Cary Williams’ complaints seem pretty worthless. And yet, maybe we should take a breath and ask whether the Eagles’ cutting edge sports science program might be pushing players a bit too far.

Williams’ specific arguments don’t make any sense – not only are the Eagles 3-0, but they’ve outscored opponents 74-24 in the second half. Cary claims that the Birds “have no legs” at the start of the game. Where do they get new ones during halftime?

Against Washington, the defense faced 45 first half snaps, but at the end of the game safety Malcolm Jenkins (26) and slot CB Brandon Boykin (24) ran around like excited toddlers and shut Washington down.

But let’s face it. The whole point of sports science is getting more out of players, and it’s possible that the Eagles are taking too much out of them. The team was remarkably free of injuries in 2013 – according to Football Outsiders, they had the second lowest total of Adjusted Games Lost at 33.6, and nearly half of those were due to Jeremy Maclin’s ACL tear in training camp.

This year, however, has been a disaster. By the end of the Washington game, Philadelphia was missing three of its top four inside linebackers and four of seven offensive linemen to injuries.

Because the Eagles are venturing into unexplored territory with their heavy practice reps, year-round (voluntary) training and sports science, they should reconsider whether pushing players to the extremes of their ability is leading to injuries or shortening careers.

Chip Kelly had great success at the University of Oregon with his fast tempo and sports science approach – a combination of old-fashioned good nutrition and hydration with high-tech monitoring and workout machines. But college rosters are twice as big as those in the NFL, and the Ducks used extensive rotation (especially on the defensive line) to keep players fresh.

Just as importantly, college players are young. The Ducks didn’t have any 30-something veterans to keep healthy, but the Eagles have 12 (almost one-fourth of the roster). The average age of the injured offensive linemen (Kelce, Mathis, Barbre and Tobin) is 28, and it’s fair to wonder if Sports Science director Shaun Huls needs to dial down his program for the viejos. Then again, the injured ILBs are 23, 23 and 25. So perhaps age isn’t the issue.

At his press conference Monday, Chip Kelly noted that the Eagles monitor each player and individually tailor their training on a daily basis. In fact, this is the main point of the elaborate machinery used in the sports science program – not to build strength and quickness faster, but to gauge player’s recovery from traditional workouts. (They also fill out a daily questionnaire about how they feel and report any soreness or injuries.)

If you listen closely to players’ comments about sports science, the word “recovery” comes up again and again. Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll recently told Tim McManus of Birds 24/7 that

We have a whole staff dedicated just to getting us to recover. Every single day when we come in here in the morning, we have assessments that we do to monitor how our body is feeling from the day before and I think that’s something that no other team in the league is doing right now. It helps us as far as eliminating injuries that most other places you wouldn’t be able to recognize until it’s too late.

Last year, Jenny Vrentas of Sports Illustrated’s MMQB described several of the machines that the Eagles have invested in, from the OmegaWave machine to Polar Systems’ heart monitors. She wrote that

The Polar system generates post-workout recovery reports, with a timestamp for when an athlete can next handle more training. … And the Omegawave system uses an electrocardiogram transmitter and a pair of electrodes that tap into the central nervous system to measure stress, fatigue and capacity for aerobic or anaerobic exercise.”

The Eagles are very tight-lipped about the program, but competitive runner Susan Legacki reviewed the OmegaWave system last year for Lava Magazine, and gave a great description of how it works.

Each morning the machine gives you scores in five categories: cardiac readiness, resting heart rate, stress, recovery pattern, and adaptation reserves. The last two scores in particular tell you whether you can handle a high-intensity workout, or should back off to prevent injury.

In Legacki’s case, the machine helped her train through (and heal) a foot injury coming off of one race and building up to another. Mostly, it tempered her burning desire to get back training with a caution that injury risk was higher than normal on two of the five days.

So, in theory, the sports science program is designed precisely to avoid workout injures and should help players, not hurt them. And yet, a source in Nike’s research department told me that the Omegawave – which has been available since the late 1990s — has never really caught on, in part because there is no solid evidence that it works as advertised.

I’m not saying that this is some kind of Flowers For Algernon-type deal, where the same technique that improves ability leads to quicker deterioration. But the Eagles may be putting too much stock in unproven technology, and the size of their injury report is some real-world data that should make them be cautious moving forward.

Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t Maybe it works for most players, but not for everyone. We just don’t know.

There is another, more subtle possibility. The sports science program may lead to injuries precisely because it works so well. I’ll explain.

Much has been written about how stretching before exercise does not actually prevent injuries, in part because the increased flexibility allows athletes to extend themselves further, and because stretching appears to mask muscle pain.

In a similar way, sports science may be the victim of its own success. Players can do more, and with the excitement of the game and the rewards for elite performance, they may be pushing their bodies further than is wise, into dangerous territory.

Consider the screen pass to Jeremy Maclin Sunday, an 80-yard touchdown brought back to Washington’s 40 due to an illegal block in the back by Eagles center Jason Kelce. The penalty obscured an incredible sprint by Kelce. At 6’3, 295 pounds, he was running neck and neck with speedy WR Maclin (6’0, 198) sixty yardsdownfield from the line of scrimmage.

That is phenomenal athleticism, and I have no doubt that sports science helped make it possible. But Kelce left the game just after halftime with a sports hernia that will likely keep him off the field until December. The exuberance of an emotional game and his ability to run faster and longer than anyone else his size may have led him to literally bust a gut in the pursuit of victory.

Is sports science leading to injuries, or simply allowing players to push themselves further, into the red zone? We simply don’t know. It’s way too early to say.  But as impressive as the results of Chip Kelly’s programs have been, the Eagles need to be cautious about how hard they push their players. They don’t have that many ovens left on the roster.

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Mark Saltveit is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (Diversion Books: 2013) and the upcoming “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books: Nov. 2014).  He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association, and about football for Philly.comBleedingGreenNation.comIgglesBlitz, and FishDuck.com.  His work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.

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Changes Up Front

Posted: September 23rd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 162 Comments »

In the previous post I speculated about some different OL configurations. Nothing is official, but based on practice and some comments by David Molk, it sounds like there will be changes on the line.

It sounds like the OL will look like this:

LT Jason Peters
LG Matt Tobin
OC David Molk
RG Dennis Kelly
RT Todd Herremans

This is my favorite of the possibilities.

Tobin is a player the Eagles like He has yet to play on offense during the season, but had an outstanding spring and was great this summer. He was the best player on the #2 OL. His run blocking was especially impressive. He spent almost all of his time at LG so that is a spot where he is very comfortable.

You also have to remember that the OL will be getting  a boost next Monday when Lane Johnson returns. The key spot to solve is LG, since that isn’t a 1 or 2 game situation. That is 6 or so weeks. Tobin could take that spot and prove to be a good fit until Evan Mathis returns.

Jason Kelce is out for a while, but there isn’t much question about replacing him. David Molk has that spot.

As to the right side of the line, I think the key was getting Andrew Gardner off the field. He struggled on Sunday. You put Dennis Kelly at RG and that frees up Herremans to slide outside to RT. Kelly played RG this spring and summer. He played some there in 2012. While he doesn’t have a ton of experience, he’s more comfortable there than at LG. Herremans has played RT for a full season so moving out there isn’t a huge deal for him. There is some adjustment, but he should play better than Gardner did on Sunday.

One of the benefits to this group is that they should do a good job of run blocking. Tobin and Peters give the Eagles a good pair of run blockers on the left side. Herremans is athletic enough to make the reach blocks that the Eagles need out of an OT. Kelly has some good moments in the run game, but must get more consistent.

Hopefully Lane Johnson will return for Game #5 and Herremans can slide back into RG. That would be another boost to the OL and would help solidify the group until Mathis and Kelce are able to return in 6 or so weeks.

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Why doesn’t Brandon Boykin start?

Many of you think the coaches are nuts for not starting him on the outside. Bill Davis and Chip Kelly talk about how the Nickel Corner is a starting position, but the bottom line is that the slot guy plays maybe half of the snaps. Call that what you want, but it isn’t the same.

Davis addressed the situation in his PC today. Reporters peppered him on the subject. They aren’t happy with a talented player like Bokin sits and Bradley Fletcher starts.

I totally get where they are coming from. But I also get the coaches. They don’t have Fletcher out there for the heck of it.

Playing the slot and outside are 2 different things. Just because you excel at one does not mean you will excel at the other. Remember how lost DRC was when he tried to play the slot? Boykin looks very good in the slot. So did Joselio “MmmBop” Hanson. Did you ever want him on the outside?

I know that Boykin is more athletic than Hanson so that isn’t a completely fair comparison. The point is that just because you’re good at one  spot doesn’t make it automatic that you’ll be good at a similar spot.

Let’s review for a minute. The slot or Nickel corner is an inside position. The player spends more time in traffic. He needs quickness and agility. Most routes are going to be 20 yards or less so long speed isn’t critical. He isn’t going to be part of Cover 3 or Cover 4 as much. The slot will play a lot of man-to-man. The slot corner is more of a playmaker position. You can blitz more and you get plenty of passes coming your way.

That is a perfect situation for Boykin.

Outside corner is very different. You play a mixture of man and zone. You play a mixture of press and off coverage. Sometimes you are responsible for half or a third of the deep field. Bigger corners have a longer stride and can eat up ground while on the move. You tend to face bigger receivers and that makes a difference. Covering Wes Welker is very different from Dez Bryant.

My guess is that the coaches feel Boykin excels in the slot, but that he would be more of an average player on the outside. Fletcher isn’t exactly lighting it up out there, but if you bench him then Bokin is splitting time between the outside and the slot. That can be done, but that doesn’t make it the right move.

I would be fine with the coaches putting Boykin outside. I really don’t have a strong preference. I just don’t see it as the slam dunk move that so many others do. I trust this coaching staff. If they don’t make a move, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. If this was the Castillo Gang, I’d be much more likely to disagree with the use of players.

The player I want to see more of at LCB is Nolan Carroll.

The Eagles do need corner help in the offseason.

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MASH Unit

Posted: September 22nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 287 Comments »

The O-line was a huge part of the Eagles success in 2013. The Eagles won games with 2 QBs. They won by throwing the ball and running. LeSean McCoy actually led the NFL in rushing. When it came to throwing the ball, it was spread to WRs, TEs and RBs. All of the points and yards piled up by the skill players were greatly helped by 5 guys up front.

The Eagles were able to start the same 5 O-linemen for the entire season, a rarity, and that group played well, very well at times. Not only did coach Jeff Stoutland have the same 5 guys, he had 5 talented players. Stoutland must have thought life in the NFL was pretty easy.

That was then, this is now.

The current Eagles OL needs name tags to keep up with everyone’s identity. For the final 10 minutes of Sunday’s game, the line was:

LT Andrew Gardner
LG Wade Smith
OC David Molk
RG Dennis Kelly
RT Todd Herremans

Smith has only been with the team for 2 weeks. Molk saw his first extensive action at C in the NFL. Kelly was playing his second game in 2 years. Gardner practiced at RT all week before having to slide to LT during the game. That is a drastic difference.

None of those 4 guys played one snap for the Eagles in 2013. That’s pretty crazy.

Todd Herremans must be the world’s loneliest man. All of his friends keep getting hurt and making him hang out with the new guys.

We found out today that Jason Kelce needs sports hernia surgery and will be out for a while. The question now is whether anything will happen to Jason Peters. Will he get suspended if the NFL feels like he threw a punch? Chip Kelly doesn’t think Peters will be suspended and I agree. It wasn’t a true punch. It wasn’t a cheap shot. And it wasn’t aimed at an innocent victim.

I’m interested to see what the Eagles do on the OL, assuming Peters is back. Let’s look at some options.

LT Peters
LG Kelly
C Molk
RG Herremans
RT Gardner

That would offer the most stability.

LT Peters
LG Smith
C Molk
RG Kelly
RT Herremans

This would give the Eagles the most experienced combination of players. Smith has a ton of experience at LG. Kelly has his most experience on the right side.

LT Peters
LG Tobin
C Molk
RG Kelly
RT Herremans

This would be an interesting group. Matt Tobin has been hurt since the preseason finale, but spent the summer playing LG and the Eagles really like him. You would keep Wade Smith on the bench and he could be the backup OG/OC. Kelly said Smith was the emergency C last week. Tobin has very limited experience so this lineup does have some risk.

One consideration is that Evan Mathis is going to miss another 6 or so weeks. It would be great to find someone to plug in at that spot and you could leave them there. That could be Tobin or Kelly or Smith.

The good news is that the Eagles will get back Lane Johnson next Monday. Hopefully he will be ready to play and that will help the Eagles establish some continuity up front.

I don’t think there is an obvious right move here. I really like the idea of Tobin getting on the field, but is he healthy and how much would his lack of experience be an issue?

Back to Kelce and his situation. Molk can be an effective replacement. He is a good athlete who has been part of the program since the offseason began. He is a natural Center. Back in 2012 you had Dallas Reynolds take over. He had played C, G and T in college and the NFL. Molk was a 4-year starting C at Michigan. He was a backup C for the Chargers in 2012. He’s been a C since joining the Eagles. Making line calls and setting the line will come naturally to him.

I don’t know if the Eagle will make a roster move or not. Kelce isn’t going on IR. If you want to add a C, you must cut someone. I just don’t know who you’re getting rid of. Jeff Maehl actually had an important catch on Sunday. You need LBs for STs.

The one thing I do know…Jeff Stoutland is going to earn his money this year. The Eagles scored 10 points in the final 10 minutes, which is when the makeshift OL was on the field. They weren’t good, but they were good enough. And that’s okay for now.

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Being Clutch

Posted: September 22nd, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 314 Comments »

I am an Orioles fan and over the past few years I’ve become a big Buck Showalter fan. He is the Orioles manager and is a very interesting guy. The Orioles had a breakout season in 2012 and one of the reasons was their record in one-run games and extra-inning games. They had a historically good record in those situations. The media would ask Buck why his team was so clutch, when they came through with the big hit in the 12th or 13th or 14th inning?

Buck’s response was always the same. “Are we really clutch? Why didn’t we get that big hit in the 8th, 9th or 10th inning?”

You could argue that the Orioles were clutch, or that they simply outlasted opponents.

I think Chip Kelly would like Showalter quite a bit. They have a different way of looking at sports. Conventional wisdom isn’t always so wise. Kelly might be impressed that his defense came up with a clutch stop at the end of the game, but he also might tell you that if they didn’t allow one of the two previous TD drives, there wouldn’t have been the same need to make that clutch stop.

You have to be impressed with the way the Eagles have responded at key moments in each of the first 3 games. They have been a clutch team. You just wish they would quit putting themselves into a position where they need to make such plays.

We’ve seen plenty of Eagles teams over the years that didn’t make those clutch plays so it definitely feels good to see the team step up when needed. Pressure can get to players. Last week the Colts had a huge opportunity when they got the ball with about 3:20 left in the game. I just knew Andrew Luck would lead them down the field for a FG. My question is whether the Eagles would respond. Instead, the Colts went 3 and out. Beyond that, Luck looked shaky on the 3rd down play.

You could see pressure getting to Kirk Cousins yesterday. I made the point all week that the Skins got up on the Jags and Cousins never had to deal with game pressure. He did yesterday and it affected him. As he was getting plays from the coaches, you could see in his mannerisms that he was uneasy. In the 1st half, he just sat there and covered his ears. In the 2nd half, he was more demonstrative. He wanted the call quicker. Or he seemed hurried as he tried to get the team lined up.

Cousins was 19 for 25 in the 1st half. He was 11 for 23 in the 2nd half. His accuracy went away. He still made some terrific throws, but there were errant passes mixed in as well. The Eagles got more pressure on him in the 2nd half, but he wasn’t getting knocked around left and right. The pressure of the game was getting to him more than the Eagles pressure.

I’m not ripping Cousins. He is a young player and had to deal with some tough circumstances that he’s just not used to. Time will tell if he is a clutch player or not. He just wasn’t yesterday.

Nick Foles has made the critical throws in the last 2 games. His pass to Zach Ertz to open the go-ahead drive last week was a thing of beauty. He put the ball out there and let Ertz get under it. That throw was accurate and had touch. The big throw yesterday was the pass to James Casey to seal the game. That pass was perfectly thrown. It had accuracy and velocity, but was also catchable.

Foles has proven to be quite the 4th Qtr QB. That’s a great sign for a team with big time aspirations. More than a few playoff games are decided in the final quarter. You need a QB that can step up to the moment and deliver. Foles play would lead you to believe he can be that guy. Hopefully we’ll find out in a few months.

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The Eagles are averaging 34 points a game so far. That puts them on pace for 544. Last year they scored 442.

I would love to see the Eagles break 500. That’s when you know you’re dealing with a truly dynamic offense. The team would need to average 31.3 points per game for the season to get past 500. Here’s to hoping they do it.

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The Eagles don’t have a sack in either of the last 2 games. That’s not good.

Before you hit the panic button, realize that the Skins didn’t sack Foles on Sunday, despite having Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orakpo and Jason Hatcher going against a makeshift OL for much of the game.

The Eagles do need a stud pass rusher. That will be a key issue in free agency or the draft.

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Bradley Fletcher did not have a good game on Sunday. But let’s also give him some credit. He never quit battling and did make some plays in the 2nd half. Fletcher broke up 2 passes and his coverage got better. He still is a major weak spot, but you at least respect the fact he didn’t get down on himself and that he kept competing.

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Random Sunday Night Thoughts

Posted: September 21st, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 241 Comments »

The Eagles sit at 3-0, one of just 3 teams that can say that. I’m assuming the Panthers will lose since they now trail the Steelers 23-6 and their offense has really struggled. The other 3-0 teams…Cincy and Arizona. The Bengals look like a Super Bowl team right now. They are playing stifling defense and blowing people out. The Cards are winning ugly, behind backup QB Drew Stanton. The Eagles look better than the Cardinals, but not as good as the Bengals to this point.

The 3-0 record is nice, but doesn’t tell us a thing. The 2004 team started 7-0 and went to the Super Bowl. The 1993 Eagles started 4-0 and finished 8-8, missing the playoffs. The 1992 team started 4-0 and finished 11-5, a wildcard team.

* Remember when the Eagles couldn’t win at home? The Linc is back to being a fun place to watch football. The Eagles are 2-0 at home this year and won their final 4 regular season games at The Linc last year. The Eagles lost their first 4 home games in 2013. The 2012 team lost everywhere.

* The Eagles did not give up a sack today, despite the makeshift OL. Nick Foles did take a beating, but still had time to throw for 325 yards and help the team score 37 points. I couldn’t help but think back to the Osi Game from 2007. Winston Justice had to start at LT and the Eagles were without Brian Westbrook. Andy Reid came up with an awful game plan that had the team passing 2 times for every run play. Donovan McNabb was sacked 12 times and the Eagles only scored 3 points.

This offense has a lot more talent than that group, but maintaining some sense of balance, even when the run game isn’t working, is important. Chip Kelly also mixed short, quick throws with downfield plays. He helped the OL out as much as he could. His “Equal Opportunity Offense” really does keep defenses off balance. Brilliant guy.

* The Niners lost today to fall to 1-2. That team has some issues. I did not anticipate the Eagles being 2 games up on them when the team met. The Eagles travel out to SF to play them on Sunday.

* Another game with 30 points for the Eagles. They had 3 straight 30-point games late last year. They also did that in 2010. If they can put up 30 next week, that will be pretty impressive. I went all the way back to 1990 looking for the last time the Eagles scored 30 or more in 4 straight games. Couldn’t find that. We’ll have to let Reuben Frank dig up that stat.

I thought it might have happened in 2004, but that team actually scored fewer points than you think.

* Cody Parkey is pretty darn good. He kicked off 8 times on Sunday. Parkey had 5 touchbacks. Beyond that, his kicks are deep enough that they generally are well-covered. The Skins had 46 KOR yards. Add in the fact he was 3-3 on FGs, including a 51-yarder and you can see what a weapon he has become. Many of you were mad at the Eagles for not replacing Henery sooner or bringing in better competition. The Eagles got lucky in finding Parkey as they did, but they finally did get PK right.

* Cary Williams shot his mouth off about not liking the Eagles practices. Apparently he feels they wear him down and that affects him on gameday. If that’s his opinion, so be it. I do wonder if the fact this game came on a short week has any impact on his thinking.

Kelly isn’t about to change his schedule or practice style. Williams needs to talk to him or this could lead to some friction. If Cary genuinely feels like this, he’s not going to stay quiet about it.

This just comes across to me as Williams making excuses It will be interesting to see if this story has any legs or dies quickly.

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