GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews heard the stories growing up. None of them involved heart monitors, or nutritionists, or urinalysis.
Not from his grandfather, Clay Sr., who played in the NFL in the 1950s. Not from his father, Clay Jr., and his uncle, Bruce, both of whom played 19 seasons over a 25-year span.
“I just think it’s the natural progression of the league,” the Green Bay Packers sixth-year outside linebacker said Monday. “There was a point where you’d smoke cigarettes and eat hot dogs at halftime. Now, we have specifically designed drinks for us.”
Matthews paused, and smiled. “Not to say that stuff didn’t work.”
While Matthews is no scientist, he is a third-generation NFL player. And he is embracing the new world that Packers coach Mike McCarthy has brought to Green Bay. What started somewhat slowly, with GPS monitors on players during practice, is now a full-blown modernization revolution in the pro sports’ smallest market.
He has changed the structure of the work week, going away from his 48-hour rule – which kept his players off their feet and well-rested in advance of kickoff – and instead moving traditional Friday practices to Saturdays in advance of Sunday games.
He has changed the structure of the practices themselves, moving the most intense periods to the middle of the practice and tapering off with lower intensity position and individual drills while expanding the number of “regeneration periods,” during which players are given snacks, sports drinks and water. Throughout practice, there is a member of the training staff on a sideline laptop computer, tracking the exertion levels of every player on the field.
He has hired a nutritionist from the University of Oregon, Adam Korzun, whose official title is director of performance nutrition and who is altering players’ diets, getting them to rethink everything they put into their bodies.
He has his medical and athletic training staffs collecting weekly urine samples, tracking each player’s hydration level. While he isn’t monitoring players’ sleep patterns – not yet, anyway – he has had his staff educate players in the value of a good night’s rest and given them access to monitors, studies and information if they are interested in making changes there, too.
“You know, us football players don’t like change,” Matthews said. “We’re very regimented. We’re on a schedule, showing up at certain times. But seeing this change, I’m able to buy into it and I think the other players are, too – just because of the science behind it. You can’t refute numbers, and I think what it’s shown that this is the right way to do it or the best option right now.”
Another pause, another smile. “Maybe one day they’ll say we don’t have to practice at all and we can just show up on game days. Fingers crossed.”
In the last few days, two terrific profiles of Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly have outlined the out-of-the-box thinking Kelly has brought to the NFL from his time at the University of Oregon. Seth Wickersham of ESPN the Magazine wrote about Kelly’s unconventional approach through the eyes of star running back LeSean McCoy. And Chris B. Brown of Grantland detailed the influence Kelly’s innovations are having on other teams in the league.
One of those teams, clearly, is the Packers, who like the Eagles want to keep the specifics of their operation under wraps.
McCarthy, who like Kelly also believes in running an up-tempo, no-huddle offense and has been running accelerated practices since before Kelly came into the league, said he and Kelly have never spoke at length, only exchanging pleasantries at NFL events and when their teams played each other last November at Lambeau Field.
McCarthy seemed to bristle slightly Monday at the suggestion that he was imitating many of the changes Kelly brought to the Eagles. He credited strength and conditioning coordinator Mark Lovat, the team’s Mike Eayrs-led research and development staff, vice president of football administration Russ Ball, and the medical and athletic training staffs – but also made it clear that if there was something another team was doing that he liked, he would make no apologies for copycatting it.
So far, the changes appear to be paying dividends. Training-camp injuries are down sharply for the team that, according to Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin’s annual study of injuries, has lost an astronomical 153 games by starters to injury over the last two seasons, the most in the league. 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.
So far in camp, while would-be fifth receiver Jared Abbrederis and No. 6 offensive lineman Don Barclay each suffered season-ending knee injuries, muscle pulls have been virtually non-existent, and precious few in-game injuries have occurred.
“We’ve done a pretty good job around here training our players and winning games. [But] we’re about winning championships,” said McCarthy, who is 88-50-1 as he enters his ninth season as coach, having led the team to the Super Bowl XLV title. “Anything we feel we can do better, we’re going to do our due diligence, go through it.
“[You] never want to just do something because someone else did it, but if they’re doing something that’s better than what we’re doing, then we’re going to do it. This is the Green Bay Packers. We have tremendous resources and our organization gives us that each and every year, and we feel the changes we made have been for the best.”
And his players are buying in – big time. For them, the scientifically influenced changes could be the difference between being a good team and a great one.
“I would say yes because we already have the pieces in place,” nose tackle B.J. Raji replied when asked if he thought the changes might make a difference. “If you don't have a good football team, I don't know if hydration is going to help you much, but if you got guys who can play a little bit, I think that's going to give you just enough edge to accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
Veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson said players’ hydration levels are checked “towards the end of the week,” leading into games, whereas when he first entered the league in 2008, hydration was essentially a game-day issue and only would be a during-the-week emphasis if that Sunday’s game was being played under extremely warm conditions.
It wasn’t all that long ago that then-head coach Mike Sherman had his players prepping for a hot September game at Arizona simply by practicing in the Hutson Center with the heat cranked up and drinking optional pickle juice cocktails, whose salt-and-vinegar mixture supposedly prevented cramping and dehydration.
Nelson said some players need more monitoring than others, and that players who are deemed to not be hydrated enough are re-tested until their levels are where they belong.
“There are guys here who are hydrated, they pee in the cup, we move on. There are guys who pee in a cup, and then they have to pee in a cup again the next day because they were dehydrated and need to be monitored more,” Nelson said. “Everyone’s different.”
As for the practice changes, Nelson said that the fact that the Packers have practiced the day before each of their two preseason games hasn’t proven conclusively that it’s the right move.
“I know we’ve done it the last two weeks, but it’s still training camp and it’s different. because we’re not playing whole games and you’re not coming off a whole game,” Nelson said. “The science of building up to a game instead of tapering down to a game somewhat makes sense.”
Indeed it does. The philosophical shift comes from the idea within the track-and-field community (a group Kelly got to know in Eugene, Ore., known as Tracktown, USA) that race-day performance is enhanced by a semi-vigorous workout the day before.
“When I ran track, we would have a release drill the day before. We would run, not full out go, but we’d get a nice good stride in, to warm your body up for the next day,” said wide receiver Randall Cobb, who was a four-year track letterman in high school. “I think that’s what we’re implementing here.”
Added Raji: “Every level of football – high school, college – I’ve always done something to get my blood flowing the day before a game. When I got to Green Bay, that was the first time I really wasn’t doing much 36, 48 hours before a game. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of success around here, so that really hasn’t been a problem. [But] I was excited just to be able to get your blood flowing before a game and the next day you’re pretty fresh and ready to go.”
Cobb said the team has done “some sleep studies” but that players are not hooked up to sleep monitors at night, as Kelly instituted with his Eagles players, having told them that studies show elite athletes who get 10 to 12 hours per night of sleep perform far better than those who sleep less.
“Now, it’s on us as pros to go out and do those things. They’re giving us the education and helping us understand what we can be doing to help ourselves,” Cobb said. “I’m still working on my sleeping patterns. I have terrible sleeping patterns.”
For Cobb, his biggest change has been in nutrition. He said he hasn’t eaten red meat in three months and has replaced it with seafood and poultry. He misses a good steak.
“Every time I go to a restaurant, that’s what I want to order,” he admitted
But that sacrifice is part of a greater movement of change, and the widespread feeling in the locker room that it’s worth it.
“I’ve seen the research behind it, and it’s only going to help us out,” Matthews said. “I think the team has bought into it. We know the benefits it will have on us, and we’ll just roll with it.
“They’re not going to sit here and tell us this is what we’re doing without saying, ‘Hey, this is why we’re doing it.’ We’re all adults here and like to know why we’re doing certain things. For the most part, research has shown – I’m not going to say numbers and percentages – that this is the most viable option. And that’s what we’re doing.
“I don’t know, it just works, man. It just works.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.