- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Washington Redskins were the most-injured team in the NFL two years ago. They lost top contributors like Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson to season-ending injuries. The team tried to study ways to mitigate the problem and put 2017 in the past.

Then it happened again.

The Redskins had 26 players spend time on the injured reserve list in 2018 — three more than the year before.

Against that injury-streaked backdrop, it’s no wonder Trent Williams’ holdout over frustration with the Redskins’ medical staff is the biggest story for a team opening the 2019 season this weekend with a couple of new quarterbacks and a coach on the hot seat.

Williams felt Washington’s medical staff mishandled treatment of a growth on his scalp, which turned out to be benign but still gave him a scare. Former Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall told NFL Network this summer he’d spoken with Williams and called the situation unorthodox. “We’ve never had a player say, ‘Hey, get that training staff out of here or I’m not coming back,’” Hall said.

Hall this week provided an update, saying Williams told Redskins president Bruce Allen he didn’t want to “cost nobody their job.” Williams hasn’t spoken publicly, but the tackle’s displeasure has leaked through reports like these.

The drama around Williams’ holdout, the team’s persistent injury history and the prominent players who’ve struggled with longer-than-average recoveries have Redskins fans worrying about what goes on in the trainers’ room as much as what’s happening on the field.

And it’s not just fans asking questions. One league source told The Washington Times athletes often consider the quality of a team’s medical care when deciding whether to sign — or to leave.

“The NFLPA and the agents do a very good job of understanding which teams do the best job (with their medical staffs),” the source said. “And that’s definitely a factor players and agents use in the selecting of a team in free agency.”

Injured faith

Williams isn’t the only player questioning how the Redskins handle injuries.

In 2017, former Redskins safety Su’a Cravens was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and felt the team didn’t take the condition seriously enough. The Redskins later placed him on the season-ending reserve/left squad list while he claims he intended to return; Cravens has an ongoing grievance against the team to get back his $651,408 base salary Washington withheld.

In a series of tweets last month, Cravens implied he doesn’t feel his was an isolated incident.

“(Two) years later and I’m still fighting the Skins on something they’ve continued to do countless time,” Cravens wrote. “Which is why the best tackle in the game refuses to play for them now. Same reason I left. Mishandled injuries and withheld info. All evidence points to them being guilty!”

It’s important to make a distinction between medical and training personnel. The Redskins employ six physicians — three focused on internal medicine and three orthopedic doctors — the head physician being director of sports medicine Robin West from Inova Sports Medicine. Head trainer Larry Hess leads a staff of five trainers, whose work lies in the rehabilitation and recovery process.

The sports website The Athletic reported last month that there is “at least some dissatisfaction inside Redskins Park” over the training staff, but Hess, entering his 18th season working for the team, has owner Dan Snyder’s support.

The Redskins declined to comment for this story, but there is evidence the organization has stepped up efforts in recent years to address the injury issues.

In 2018, the team upgraded its facilities with a state-of-the-art rest and recovery room that features everything from zero-gravity chairs and giant float pods to laser-therapy and cryotherapy equipment. Hess told the Associated Press that the efforts helped reduce soft-tissue injuries, like sprains, strains and torn ligaments, by more than 50% last season.

Earlier this year, before the Williams situation became public, Washington’s training staff was given the 2018 Ed Block Courage Award for NFL Athletic Training Staff of the Year, as voted upon by members of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society (reached for comment, a PFATS spokesman did not explain how the voting process worked).

The team insists the past two years of medical woes have not been a product of mismanagement.

“I don’t think you can avoid so many injuries that can occur,” Allen said earlier this year at the combine. “We’ve been trying to figure out how to get people healthy quicker. Our players’ efforts have been great. We just have to make sure we put them all in the proper position to come into the season healthy.”

“We have bad luck,” coach Jay Gruden said in March. “Lots of consultants come in and said, ‘Gosh, that’s too bad, man. That’s unfortunate.’”

Hit hard up front

Williams’ decision to hold out drew the support of some other Redskins. In June — many weeks before he wore a Williams jersey to a training camp interview and said he missed his teammate — tackle Morgan Moses praised Williams for taking a stand.

“It’s about time someone like that stands up,” Moses said, adding, “It’s not just a situation here; it happens throughout the league. To have one of our peers like Trent to stand up like that means a lot. His scare is one you never want to have, but you’ve got to take care of yourself.”

Williams’ and Moses’ positional group, the offensive line, was the unit hit hardest by injuries last year. Seven offensive linemen finished 2018 on injured reserve — including players like Austin Howard and Jonathan Cooper, free agents who were signed midseason when other linemen went down, only for themselves to get injured soon after.

Offensive line coach Bill Callahan alluded to the Redskins’ own research into how to lower those numbers. “We’ve had these massive studies around here,” Callahan said in June. “But really, nothing came out in the ‘Mueller Report’ here about injury status.”

Callahan is known to work his players hard in practice, but he mostly refuted the idea that they were more susceptible to injury as a result.

“I think we’re more careful in the sense that we’re looking at the amount of reps,” he said. “We’re not burning any player with an increased amount or workload, for that matter … But as far as some of the injuries that we’ve had, it’s really not been a cause or a function of what we’re doing in practice. They’re really kind of freak injuries.”

That may be true — many injuries are just the cost of playing football — but in some prominent cases, Redskins players took longer than expected to get back to full health due to infections.

Under the microscope

While recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the 2018 preseason, running back Derrius Guice spent two months fighting off infection and required three additional procedures, the Washington Post reported. Quarterback Alex Smith famously broke his leg last November and later fought off a “serious” infection of his own.

Derek Ochiai, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert based in Arlington, said infections are especially common for the type of fracture Smith had, in which his tibia broke through the skin and was exposed.

But the Redskins also have come under scrutiny for their handling of quarterback Colt McCoy’s recovery from a less gruesome broken leg he suffered two weeks after Smith’s.

Gruden admitted the team tried to return McCoy to the field too fast, possibly against the best advice of the medical team. The plan was that he could start in the postseason if Mark Sanchez or Josh Johnson carried Washington to a playoff berth. McCoy has had two extra surgeries since the initial repair and missed all preseason action during a wide-open quarterback battle.

“He probably rushed back, we probably rushed him back a little too quick and it didn’t have a chance to heal so they had to go back in (for surgery) a little bit,” Gruden said. “That was nobody’s fault, just a fluke-type deal that something else happened.”

But how many flukes are too many? ESPN injury analyst and physical therapist Stephania Bell said if there were a straightforward answer to why some teams deal with more injuries than others, every team would try to follow the same formula for success.

“Nobody wants to be wearing that badge of ‘We had the most players on IR,’” Bell said. “But I would say that in fairness, just like anything else scientific, things go in cycles and you sort of have to look at them in broad strokes in bigger clusters than one or two years.”

Bell said an NFL Players’ Association source told her that “Alex Smith, Colt McCoy and Trent Williams love, love, love Dr. Robin West,” the head team physician.

“When I hear that a player has a complaint with the medical staff, and again this goes for any player, any team, I’m always curious who their gripe is with, because usually it’s not an entire group. It’s a couple of people,” Bell said.

Ochiai added that team doctors are always under a microscope.

“Basically it’s a no-win situation,” Ochiai said.

“If somebody gets injured and you treat them and they get better, that’s expected,” the surgeon said. “If somebody gets injured and either it takes longer or they have a complication that takes longer, then it’s your fault. You can’t win, you can only ‘not lose’ in that situation.”

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