Player Availability Improved in 2014

Want an overlooked ingredient to the Packers’ success this past season? How about the health of the team. Twenty of the 25 players (including specialists) who started in the NFC Championship game were available for every game. And while Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury was a big story down the stretch, the Packers made strides in keeping their players ready each week. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY)

The Green Bay Packers implemented changes in 2014 designed to help the health of their football team and, based on the results, they seem to have paid off.

According to game statistics data provided by the NFL, the Packers used just five different starting lineups on offense, the lowest total in the league over the regular season. On defense, they used 11 different starting lineups, which tied for seventh-fewest in the league.

Because a game plan or opposing team can dictate how the Packers line up to start a game, perhaps an even better measure of the team’s health was that it played just 56 different players this past season (second-fewest in the league). That total is the second best of the Mike McCarthy era over the regular season (54 in 2011).

In 2013, the Packers used 65 players. The average since 2006, not counting 2014, is just more than 61 players per season.

Under McCarthy, the Packers have always been proactive in researching methods to prevent injuries but perhaps never bolder than the past year. The biggest change to the practice schedule was instituting a Saturday practice in place of Friday’s practice for Sunday games. But the major addition from the organization was the completion of the Conditioning, Rehabilitation, and Instructional Center (CRIC) during the latest phase of Lambeau Field renovations on the stadium’s east side. The CRIC includes a 35-yard indoor field and the adjacent football facilities include a weight room, team dining area, player resource and development area and player lounge.

“It’s been great, changing the schedule. And frankly, the new facility was the final hurdle for me to make the change,” said McCarthy speaking of the team’s reduction in injuries. “I wasn’t totally sold it would go the way it did this year because, obviously, we got into the new facility after the Thanksgiving game in 2013. So, I think it’s important when you make a big change it has to get off the ground. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of great ideas that don’t get off on the right foot. They fail. And it’s because of the introduction, how it was explained, the impression of why you’re changing it and so forth, because there’s always going to be doubt any time you change. We had been successful with the old schedule. I just wanted to make sure everything was lined up and ready to go.

“With that, you have to give our training staff a ton of credit. (Strength and conditioning coordinator) Mark Lovat was very instrumental in these changes. This was really a conversation, it’s been at least three years we started talking about it. The ability to start the players’ neurological clock on Saturday, the training regimen, the intervals, all the stuff has been looked at. We’ve had GPS (monitoring) data now for three years. I’ve had comparables to look back on. There’s a lot of time that goes into scheduling and training and we definitely felt like we hit a home run with the changes we made.”

After losing potential starters B.J. Raji (biceps, injured reserve for the season) and J.C. Tretter (knee, injured reserve/designated to return) during training camp, there were hardly any major injuries to speak of during the regular season. Based on opening-game starting lineups, only Bryan Bulaga (Week 2), Morgan Burnett (Weeks 7-8), Datone Jones (Weeks 6-8) and Sam Shields (Weeks 7-8) missed game action. Brad Jones, who opened the season starting at inside linebacker, missed three games early with a quadriceps injury but by then was being phased out as a starter. Jamari Lattimore took his spot initially and was the only player who started for the Packers in 2014 to end the season on injured reserved (but not until Week 15).

The Packers finished the season with 10 players on injured reserve, down from 15 the season before. But the hamstring injuries, sprains and strains that had been a problem in the past were much less prevalent on weekly injury reports.

“The biggest change is to fatigue injuries,” said McCarthy. “And really, from my position, being a draft-and-develop program, when you put this on paper, it doesn’t really add up. You’re on the field a lot less. Your high-speed training is less. So, where do these young players learn to develop? They don’t show up here from college ready to play. That was always the part I couldn’t go forward with it. So, with the new facility and the CRIC and just a learning environment and the way we’re able to utilize the CRIC for both teaching and also implementing with the strength and conditioning, it just made it all flow. The time management was better. We started a half-hour later. Hopefully, they’re going to bed the same time earlier. They’re getting more sleep supposedly. All these things. The hydration. Adam (Korzun) was an awesome addition to our program. So, I feel really good about those changes.”

Korzun came on board with the Packers in July as the director of performance nutrition after serving in a similar capacity with the University of Oregon’s athletic department. His background in nutrition and as a registered dietician runs deep including work with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Medical Center.

Of the 25 players who started in the NFC Championship game for the Packers (offense, defense and specialists), 20 of them were available for every game. Aaron Rodgers (calf, Week 16 at Tampa Bay), T.J. Lang (ankle, Week 8 at New Orleans) and Josh Sitton (toe, Week 8 at New Orleans) were three players who fought weekly through publicized injuries to finish out the season as part of that group.

Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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