ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the span of just a few seconds this week, Denver Broncos coach Vic Fangio succinctly summed up the state of his football summer — for his team as well as many others around the NFL.
Fangio was asked, one by one, about the growing list of players being held out of practice due to “soft tissue” injuries such as hamstring, calf, thigh or groin muscle strains or pulls. After explaining that defensive tackle Mike Purcell was out with a soft tissue injury, his answers for three more players took on the characteristics of a broken record.
“Same, soft tissue.”
The Broncos’ injury plight has been mirrored by other teams in the league as training camps opened without any on-field work this offseason due to COVID-19 restrictions and protocols. Teams do not issue formal injury reports during training camp, so exact injury numbers are unknown this summer. Anecdotal evidence suggests a problem, though.
The Broncos had 11 players held out of one practice this past week with several of those players — wide receivers KJ Hamler, Tim Patrick and Juwann Winfree, linebacker Todd Davis, cornerbacks De’Vante Bausby and Michael Ojemudia and Purcell — on the sideline with hamstring, groin or calf injuries.
The New York Jets had one practice this month in which 14 players were held out and another with 12 out. The Jets have had some practices where the team has had just seven healthy wide receivers. As a result coach Adam Gase kept pushing back a scheduled scrimmage until there were more players available at wide receiver and tight end.
Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien has said he has a different “ramp-up schedule” for some of the team’s veteran players because of injuries. J.J. Watt, for example, has practiced on a limited basis, while a player such as wide receiver Will Fuller, who has battled multiple injuries in his career, has been held out of team drills.
It’s a similar situation for coach Zac Taylor and the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s a fine line,” Taylor said. “You’ve got work you need to get in practice, you’re missing reps. You play in three weeks. You have a shortened roster. There’s not a lot of depth, so guys have to go. We’re trying to be mindful of how many days in a row we’re asking these guys to really run and open up and work. We certainly manage the player loads as the strength and conditioning staff monitor it. … Some of the veterans who have some more wear and tear on them, we put them on a little bit different schedule so we can follow them and take care of them. It’s an issue every team in the league is dealing with right now.”
NFL Players Association president JC Tretter expressed worry about injuries weeks before teams even took the field. Tretter compared 2020 to data the NFLPA collected from 2011 when offseason programs were canceled because of the lockout and camps only opened in late July after a new collective bargaining agreement was signed. Tretter said that year teams suffered “injury spikes” with 25% more overall injuries, 44% more hamstring injuries and “double” the amount of Achilles injuries.
The difference in 2011 was that players could work out with personal trainers, go to gyms and train in groups with no pandemic limitations. This time that didn’t happen in March, April or virtually all of May with most states under some form of stay-at-home orders and many businesses closed.
“I would argue that guys are in worse physical shape coming out of this break than out of the lockout break,” Tretter said last month.
Coaches have found themselves walking the line between a compressed timetable to get ready for the season and finding a way to practice fully with enough players at each position. Fangio said he understood the timetable, but still feels a little blindsided by some of the early injury totals.
Fangio said he would have liked to have more flexibility to adjust days the team worked through conditioning drills and days off during the ramp up period in late July and early August. With no preseason games for evaluation, the practices take on an added importance, especially for rookies and other younger, less experienced players, as rosters go to 53 players on Sept. 5.
Injuries have forced Fangio to scrap one padded practice and shorten another this summer as the Broncos “adjust and improvise and react.” In one instance, the Broncos had 66 of their 80 players in uniform, with two of those being kickers along with two long snappers among those dressed. Fangio went as far as to say after eight practices the Broncos had more soft tissue injuries than the team had in all of last year’s offseason program, training camp and preseason games put together.
“I was not expecting that,” Fangio said. “I think there were some flaws in the way we set up the acclimation period, along with other stuff.
“It doesn’t do anybody any good to whine about it now.”
ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini, Texans reporter Sarah Barshop and Bengals reporter Ben Baby contributed.