Pulled hamstrings a prominent issue for the Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 08: Cornerback Greedy Williams #26 of the Cleveland Browns during the first half of a preseason game against the Washington Redskins at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OHIO - AUGUST 08: Cornerback Greedy Williams #26 of the Cleveland Browns during the first half of a preseason game against the Washington Redskins at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 08, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns dealt with several hamstring issues during the 2019 season, and it’s an issue that needs to be rectified under Kevin Stefanski.

Although the Cleveland Browns may not have led the NFL in points scored or yardage, they were on the leaderboard for pulled hamstring injuries in 2019. The numbers say the Browns had twice as many of these issues as other teams, and it is only natural to suppose that there is something systematically wrong with the Browns approach to strength and conditioning.

Physical training is hugely important to every NFL team, though it is not as easy to quantify which teams are good at it and which teams lag behind. What we do know is that some 12 players had issues in 2019, either in preseason or during the regular season, including Juston Burris, Duke Johnson, Damarious RandallDenzel WardGreedy WilliamsSheldrick RedwineT.J. CarrieSione TakitakiDontrell HilliardOlivier VernonSheldon Richardson and D.J. Montgomery.

Having 12 players with hamstring issues is probably not normal or typical in the NFL. For example a 2008 study recorded 683 instances of pulled hamstrings in a four-year period in the NFL, meaning that teams experienced an average of 5.3 hamstring pulls per year. The 2019 Browns were more than double the calculated average.

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Particularly noteworthy is practice last September in which the Browns had three pulled hamstrings in a ten minute period. The coach of course moaned about how unlucky the team is. A statistician would suspect that, rather than an unlucky coincidence, something may be systematically wrong.

The Browns appear to have ample resources. Strength and conditioning coaches are led by Larry Jackson, assisted by Evan Marcus, Josh Christovich, Monty Gibson, and Dale Jones. They also have four athletic trainers, a physical therapist and a dietician on staff. The Browns weight room was ranked #2 in the NFL by Stack.com in 2015. In no way is this a low-budget operation. In 2016. they renovated their facility in Berea to the tune of $15 million dollars, expanding the floor space to 85,000 square feet. There is no reason to suspect under-financing of strength and conditioning as an explanation for the poor performance of the team in  2019.

The other possibility is that coaching staff may not have taken advantage of the resources that they were given. When the Browns were on HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2018, it appeared to show that running backs coach Freddie Kitchens and offensive coordinator Todd Haley wanted to emphasize hard, highly physical practices in uniform, even if some players had to be held back due to injuries. It wound up coming across as if they wanted players like Jamie Collins, recovering from major surgery, to practice hard with pads. It quickly blew up to a question of who is running the team, but the point is that Kitchens probably tended to rely on gut instinct rather than statistics and analytics.

Offensive line coach Bob Wylie openly pooh-poohed modern training methods in his hilarious rant, also on Hard Knocks. His contention was that American soldiers won two world wars while doing only sit-ups and push-ups, so modern exercises and stretching were obviously unnecessary. It was funny and he was probably just joking, but it might have been bad advice to the players if they stopped listening to what the physical trainers were trying to tell them. Did Wylie’s viewpoint rub off on Freddie?

Poor conditioning is not just the fault of Freddie. It has been part of Browns culture for years. For example, remember first round draft pick Danny Shelton in 2015? According to Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot, he was thirty pounds over his playing weight by the end of the season, meaning he was up around 365 pounds. How could he have been allowed to take the field in such terrible shape? But he was.

That same year, running back coach Wilbert Montgomery blasted his running backs for showing up to training camp in less-than-NFL shape.

Earnest Byner, who was a Browns coach during training camp that year, agreed with Montgomery and had this to say: “Yes, injuries happen to all players at one point or another. But, from all indications, these guys failed to arrive in the necessary physical condition. Should their mental shape be questioned as well? With the reduced load in training camp already lightened, they are getting further behind and in worse shape.”

We have not even begun to talk about the champagne-based training regimen of Johnny Football.  There are other examples that can be cited from other seasons. This article could be another fifty pages long.

The point is that the statistically abnormal number of hamstring pulls provides a clue that player conditioning may be substandard.

When we in the press talk about lack of discipline, it is not just being rowdy on game day. Among other things, players need to have the discipline to out-train their competitors in the offseason in order to outperform them on game day. The NFL is a rough way to make a living and it takes disciplined individuals and a disciplined team to survive.

There is a science behind training that should not be scoffed at. Modern athletic trainers know more than ever before about how to make an athlete’s body stronger, tougher and faster. Similarly, the science of rehabilitation has made enormous strides. For example, back in the day it took two years to fully recover from a torn ACL. However, Adrian Peterson suffered an ACL injury on Christmas Eve 2011, and came back in 2012 to have an MVP season. Twenty years ago, Peterson would have missed the entire season, never mind rushing for 2,097 yards.

Maybe these modern trainers know a thing or two about training and rehab and should be listened to. Maybe other teams have trainers who know more about avoiding hamstring issues, and if so, the Browns should hire one of them away from their current job.

Training and rehab are light-years ahead of where they were a few years ago. If teams ignore the knowledge that is out there, they are going to get left in the dust. The Browns NFL training needs to be as intense as training for the Olympics or the U.S. Special Forces or Navy Seals, and it also needs to use the best available methods and technology.

Available evidence suggests that the Browns have been underachievers in that area. That is now part of the team culture, which will have to be changed if the Browns are ever to have a winning team.

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