TEMPE, Ariz. -- The life of an NFL player from July until January is a structured matrix of meetings, practices, massages, meals and weightlifting. There are reminders at every corner -- calendars in locker rooms, phone alarms buzzing and digital clocks strategically placed throughout the facility.
When the season comes to an abrupt end, the schedules come down and the alarms are turned off. But the internal clock doesn't stop.
For the first couple of weeks after the Arizona Cardinals' season ended, the internal clock was tackle Eric Winston's worst enemy. It kept him on the schedule he was committed to in the regular season.
It would wake Winston in the middle of the night, making him think he was late for a meeting. Then he'd look at a real clock and realize he didn't have another practice until minicamp in May. And back to sleep he'd go.
"After you scare yourself a couple times, you talk to yourself a little bit and say you don't have to be anywhere," Winston said. "That fast-paced kind of life for seven months, when it suddenly stops, sometimes it's not even physical. It's a mental decompression that has to go on."
Recovering from the season isn't just about healing the aches and pains or getting surgeries and rehab done. It's also about easing the mind back into everyday life. For more than half the year, football players are focused on plays, game plans and audibles. "I think it takes more time for your mind to realize that there's not a game this week," Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "But I feel like I've got a good balance."
Winston said his mind is on overdrive during the season -- to the point that he can't even read. He has tried on plane rides to games or during his spare time on road trips, but he just can't concentrate. Since the season finished, he has read "No Easy Day," "David and Goliath," "The Trident," "Duty" and Tom Clancy's "Command Authority" (Clancy is one of Winston's favorite authors). Forget the bumps, bruises and breaks. The brain takes its own beating -- and we're not talking concussions, either.
"It takes a little time to adjust anytime you stop," Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "You get in a routine and you're working so hard at it that, anytime you stop, it takes a little bit of an adjustment. It takes a few weeks to get back to normal and get healed up and kind of rejuvenate yourself to get ready to go again.
"Obviously physically, you definitely can need that time to let your body heal up. But mentally, it's just as important to decompress and let everything settle in and learn from it and move forward. It takes a little time to process so you can move forward."
Brett Bartholomew, a performance specialist at Phoenix-based EXOS, formerly known as Athletes' Performance, said decompressing mentally from the season is sometimes more important than recovering physically.