-- EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The idea for the "recovery day" Tom Coughlin gave the Giants in advance of Saturday's preseason game against the Jets came from a device about the size of a stopwatch or a kid's asthma inhaler. The device fits into a cutout on the back of the undershirt a player wears in practice. Its manufacturer is an Australian company called Catapult, which since 2006 has been trying to provide ways of monitoring athletes' movements and bodily functions during activity in order to minimize injury risk and maximize performance.
Three years ago, the Giants say, they were the world's largest users of Catapult units with 90 -- one for each player in their training camp. They monitor them on a laptop during practice and watch to see whether a player's unit indicates a change of speed or movement that could indicate an injury is coming.
"There have been unique circumstances in which we have removed players from practice based on the information provided by the wearable technology," said Ronnie Barnes, the Giants' senior vice president for medical services.
You might have read Thursday about the "recovery day" the Giants got in lieu of practice. The Giants' latest application of a sports-science initiative directed the players to choose two of six recovery stations and spend their day resting and healing in advance of Saturday's preseason game against the Jets. The stations included yoga; massage; contrast bath (hot tub and cold tub); self-massage sticks, rollers and bands; functional movement screen exercises, or FMS; and air compression boots -- a particularly popular choice among the bigger linemen whose legs really needed to take a load off.
The players loved it. Some even called it a "spa day." But they also understood why it suddenly showed up on the calendar in late August 2015.
"Injuries," cornerback Prince Amukamara said, "have been huge here the last couple of years."
Have they ever. According to Football Outsiders' "adjusted games lost" metric, the Giants have been by far the most injured NFL team of the past two seasons. They lost a league-high 141.3 starter games to injury in 2013 and 137.1 in 2014. The league averages in that category in those years were 67.6 and 74.3. The second-most-injured team in 2013 was the Green Bay Packers with 103, but they bounced back and had the third-fewest adjusted games lost in 2014. The second-most-injured team in 2014 was the San Diego Chargers at 119.1 adjusted games lost.
The Giants stayed at the bottom both seasons, and that's not exactly a huge departure from prior years. From 2009 to 2012, the Giants ranked 19th, 22nd, 26th and 25th in Football Outsiders' adjusted games lost. Injuries are not a new problem in East Rutherford.
"I've certainly voiced my concern about the fact that we led the league in injuries the last two years," Giants owner John Mara said at the start of training camp. "Nobody likes that around here, and we've made some adjustments. We're trying to pay as much attention to that as possible."
Sports science initiatives are creeping further into the NFL consciousness. The Philadelphia Eagles have received a lot of attention for the efforts coach Chip Kelly has made in that area, from his loud, up-tempo practices to the individually tailored smoothies each player gets when he leaves the practice field. The Miami Dolphins overhauled their sports science program this offseason, hiring noted South African physiotherapist Wayne Diesel away from Tottenham Hotspur Football Club of the English Premier League and installing him as their new "sports performance director."
No one really has the answers yet. Kelly's efforts in Philadelphia are two years old. What Vice President of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum and Diesel are doing in Miami is just being implemented this year. We don't know yet whether they'll be successful long term or whether other teams will be reimagining their techniques a half-decade from now.
So the Giants are trying to think long term while experimenting with efforts to fix their significant short-term problem. Catapult is one such effort, and it or something like it has become common around the industry. In addition, the Giants say they use multiple technologies that examine central nervous system fatigue, readiness to train and sleep. They talk to their players about sleep optimization and recovery strategies. They have been using FMS exercises for almost eight years as part of their regular weight room routines.
Last year the Giants overhauled their cafeteria and the meal offerings they provide the players on the road, eliminating candy and other less nutritious options. They have a nutritionist who visits weekly and counsels players on individual nutrition needs, designing meal plans (and yes, even smoothies) to help each player get what he specifically needs. They regularly preach strategies for proper hydration, conduct serial hydration testing and share the data they collect from that with players so they know whether they're drinking enough -- and of what.
"Player health and safety has always been a top priority with our organization -- not only as it relates to post-injury care but also injury prevention," said Barnes, the team's longtime trainer. "Cough Coughlin meets daily with the performance manager, understands the data that is being collected and has gotten to the point where he will utilize the data to modify both the daily practice and weekly schedules. This is most evident by this past camp's modulation of the practice schedule and most recently, the recovery day. We are able to track a player's movement during practice in real time and examine the data retrospectively to look for alerts that may be indicative of injury or fatigue."
Which all sounds very good and cutting-edge. The problem, though -- and likely one of the reasons the Giants have been reluctant to discuss this stuff in detail -- is that on some very important level, it's not working. The injury numbers are through the roof, and the team's record the past two seasons is 13-19.
Theories abound as to what, exactly, the problem is. Outside the organization, some grumble about Coughlin's age -- he turns 69 on Monday and, as the league's oldest coach, is perceived by some as behind the times. Former Giant Walter Thurmond III, now with the Eagles, gave an interview in which he said Coughlin "doesn't believe in the modern medicine to progress the players to that next level." Coughlin has declined to comment on that assertion. And while he plays along with jokes about how out-of-character it would be for him to replace an in-season practice with the kind of "recovery day" he had Thursday, he's serious about doing so if he thinks the benefit is there. Coughlin might be old-school, but he's not closed-minded. And when they come to him with Catapult data that tracks players' movements during practice and correlates it to performance and injury risk, he doesn't just skim it.
"They can tell you, by virtue of the information, the potential for a guy to have a soft-tissue injury," Coughlin said Thursday. "When that happens, you back the guy down, and that's the whole purpose -- to recognize someone who is headed for a strain and try to do something about it."
Some point to the lack of turnover in the Giants' medical and training staffs and wonder whether that's an indication that they're behind the times. Barnes has been the team's head trainer since 1980. Jerry Palmieri, the team's strength and conditioning coach, first worked for Coughlin in 1993 at Boston College, then was with him in Jacksonville and came with him to the Giants in 2004. Some have suggested that Palmieri's techniques are too old-school and that some of the military-style weightlifting the Giants still do is too hard on the body. But the Giants aren't the only NFL team that still mixes traditional weight room techniques with new-school methods. The Minnesota Vikings, for example, have been vocal about recent changes to their weight room program that rely on free weights and power lifts.
"It's not Jerry Palmieri," said Giants punter Steve Weatherford, a fitness-obsessed cover boy for Muscle & Fitness magazine. "Jerry's been doing this 30 years, but he's evolved with the game. He's not stuck in the old-school, lift-heavy, lift-every-day stuff. This is the most progressive place I've been, honestly. The stuff we do with Quest Diagnostics, the blood work, the amount of data they provide us to help us understand why we're working the way we're working ... nothing like that is a problem here. I honestly just think it's a lot of bad luck."
If so, it's a heck of a lot of bad luck, and there's no end in sight. After the staggering injury issues of the past two seasons, the Giants this offseason lost starting left tackle Will Beatty when he tore a pectoral muscle on the bench press in May. Four safeties have been lost to potentially season-ending injuries in the past two weeks. Middle linebacker Jon Beason is hurt again and might not be ready for the season opener. Wide receiver Victor Cruz, working his way back from a season-ending knee injury, has been out for the past two weeks with a calf injury in the other leg. Starting center Weston Richburg and starting wide receiver Rueben Randle have been struggling all camp with knee problems. On and on it goes.
"I think it's just been some bad luck," GM Jerry Reese said, echoing the popular conclusion within the building. "When guys break bones or tear muscles off the bone or something like that, it's just unfortunate. Bad things happen sometimes in the National Football League, and hopefully this is our year to stay healthy.