How Can the 49ers Fix Their Injury Problem?
For the 49ers, the last two seasons have been marred by injuries and loses and there is no doubt that the former has a lot to do with the latter. With 37 players on injured reserve the last two seasons, the issue had become too big to ignore, so the fact that the team decided to move on from strength and conditioning coach, Ray Wright, and head athletic trainer, Jeff Ferguson, who had been with the team since 2006, shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but is there an underlying issue that is to blame and if so, what can be done to fix it?
From 2011 through 2013 the 49ers ended each season with fewer than 10 players on injured reserve each season, but the wear and tear of three consecutive runs deep in to the playoffs seemed to take its toll. When the 2014 season was over there were 15 players on inured reserve; the playoff streak was over and so was the Jim Harbaugh era. After Harbaugh, the team went through coaches like John Wick was the general manager, but the training staff remained constant. Mark Uyeyama had been with the team since 2008 and the strength and conditioning coach since 2011. Under Uyeyama the team took a sports science approach to player conditioning, a philosophy that went to the next level under Chip Kelly. Even with Kelly’s focus on monitoring everything from player sleep habits and hydration levels to the number of yards run in practice the team still wound up with 17 players on IR at the end of 2016.
When John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan were hired prior to the start of the 2017 season it signaled change throughout the organization. Ray Wright was brought in as the strength and conditioning coach after working with Shanahan in both Houston and Washington. Under Wright’s direction, the 49ers still struggled with injuries, placing 22 players on injured reserve in 2017, and 15 in 2018. Speaking to the media at the Senior Bowl in Mobile Alabama, Shanahan said that the 49ers plan to reorganize the training staff and hire someone to be the head of training who will oversee both the head athletic trainer and the strength and conditioning coach. According to Shanahan the hiring of the new head of athletic training will be done by general manager John Lynch and CEO Jed York.
What the new training staff will look like or who will lead it is yet to be determined, but there may be some insight as to how it will work, at least philosophically. According to Matt Barrows of The Athletic, John Lynch is a proponent of the Egoscue training method, going back to his days as a player. The Egoscue (pronounced ee-GOSS-kyu) training method is named for its creator, Pete Egoscue. The philosophy behind the Egoscue method is that proper body alignment will relieve pressure on joints, relieve pain and promote recovery. Another benefit of Egoscue training is that proper alignment can help avoid compensation injuries, which, are common after ligament tears like the ACL injuries suffered by Jerick McKinnon and Jimmy Garoppolo.
On his 49ers Insider Podcast in October, Matt Maiocco spoke with former 49ers strength and conditioning coach Duane Carlisle about the role of the strength and conditioning coach in preventing injuries. Carlisle cited player fatigue as the leading contributing factor in injuries, especially when it comes to soft tissue injuries. With regard to non-contact ACL injuries like those suffered by McKinnon and Garoppolo, Carlisle told Maiocco that the injury occurs as a result of misfiring muscles, (Dr. Faisal Mirza gives more detail on muscle misfire in this video) and according to Carlisle it is virtually impossible to prevent.
However, studies have shown that neuromuscular and plyometric training can be effective in preventing ACL injuries by limiting the chances that muscles misfire.
When Lynch and Shanahan took over, they treated the roster like a house on an episode of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. The two of them tore it all the way down to the studs and it is still a work in progress, but as the 49ers continue to add depth it will help lessen the number of injuries or at least lessen their impact. There are no magic bullets when it comes to preventing injuries, but the 49ers’ front office is taking a proactive approach by completely revamping the team’s training department, both in personnel and in function. If that doesn’t work, they can always try replacing the Gatorade with vitamin D fortified milk and holding a pre-game animal sacrifice.
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