The Lions’ vaccination for the injury bug

Just imagine how Lions management would have reacted a year ago at the sight of quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing passes off the roof of a building while shooting a commercial video.

Sound the panic alert! Surround the building with crews holding safety nets, in case Stafford tumbles over the side. Dispatch the franchise’s entire medical and training staff – orthopedists, athletic trainers, rehab specialists and somebody with a well-worn set of worry beads.

But that was a year ago, after Stafford had suffered through two injury-shortened seasons, and this is the 2012 season – with Stafford the picture of health and dominance.

The image Stafford displays in the promotional video is one of a healthy athlete who is supremely confident and comfortable.

Stafford launched pass after pass, all of them long, tight spirals. His motion was effortless, similar to how he torched defenses in 2011 in throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns to lead the Lions to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since 1999.

The image of Stafford in the video is a reflection of the reality of the Lions’ 2011 season. Gone were the injury clouds that hovered over the Lions and Stafford – causing him to miss 19 of his first 32 games with injuries to one knee and both shoulders.

The Lions had a healthy quarterback and a relatively healthy team in 2011.

In fact, the Lions ranked near the top of the NFL for fewest games missed by starting players due to injury.

According to research compiled by Dallas Morning News columnist and author Rick Gosselin, the Lions had starters miss 22 games to injuries.

Only two teams did better. The Eagles led with 18. The Saints were next with 20. The Ravens also had 22 missed games.

(An explanation of how the statistics were compiled is below.)

Some of it is pure luck. There is no discounting that.

But in the Lions’ case, it also can be considered a byproduct of how the Lions have been fully committed in recent years to a weight-training and conditioning program.

Even in losing seasons – a losing decade, actually – there never has been a question about the Lions’ work ethic.

That was especially important last year, when rules imposed during the owners’ lockout of players banned any team-supervised workouts in the offseason.

The team leaders organized workouts, and players worked out religiously once they reported.

“A number of things are going on with us,” said Jason Arapoff, the Lions’ head of the strength and conditioning program and in his 12th year with the team.

“One is that coach (Jim) Schwartz has been very specific of how he wants it done,” Arapoff said. “That’s great. That makes our job more defined. There’s some definition to it, and some specifics to it, that I think make it more effective.”

Schwartz has often stated his philosophy on injuries – that the reality of life in the NFL is that it’s not “if” a team incurs injuries, but how it reacts after they happen.

No team gets through a season unscathed.

And in Stafford’s case, he had two documented injuries but was able to function with both – a broken right index finger that required him to wear a protective splint for three games, and a sprained right ankle that limited his mobility.

Ultimately, the success of a conditioning program rests on the players’ commitment, and the Lions are self-motivating in that regard within the program’s structure.

“We have a team that’s been together,” Arapoff said. “There’s some continuity of how we want things done. They’re able to take care of themselves when we weren’t necessarily around each other, but they knew what expected of them when they returned.”

And there’s another element – talent.

“We have a team that’s become more talented,” Arapoff said. “Talented players – and I’ve said this before — know how to play and get in and out of bad situations on a play. They can feel it coming. They have a sense of what’s going on around them — an awareness, an innate ability to escape some situations. They know how to play the game.

“We have an elevated level of talent that also shows up in their ability to take care of themselves.”

Once the lockout ended, the Lions hit the ground running – and lifting, and doing all the other things required to achieve and maintain a high conditioning level.

“We lifted every day in training camp,” Arapoff said.
Following is an explanation of how the Dallas Morning News compiled its injury research, and how it applies to the Lions and other NFL teams:
• It was based on each team’s 22 players who were regarded as opening-day starters on offense and defense. In the Lions’ case, they also consider tight end Tony Scheffler a starting-caliber player because of his interchangeability in passing formations, but Brandon Pettigrew is the starter and he did not miss a game.

• Rookie running back Mikel Leshoure missed all of the season with a torn Achilles sustained early in training camp. Leshoure is not included in the statistics because he was never on the opening-day roster.

• Running back Jahvid Best had the most impact on the Lions’ final total, missing the last 10 games because of a concussion sustained in the sixth game.

There are no “doubles” in the accounting process. There is only one starter at a given position. If the backup also misses a game, that doesn’t count as a missed start.

• Safety Louis Delmas was next on the Lions’ games-missed list with 5.

• There is a general correlation between injuries and won-lost records, but there are exceptions.

The Super Bowl champion Giants were 26th with 68 games lost to injuries. The Patriots, who lost in the Super Bowl, were 29th with 83.

However, 12 of the 14 teams that had the fewest injuries had .500 records or better.

• Winning teams had healthy quarterbacks.

In the NFC, all six playoff teams had quarterbacks who did not miss a game because of injury.

In the AFC, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger missed one start with an ankle injury. Houston’s Matt Schaub missed six games, but the Texans had such a big lead in the AFC South that they still won the division despite finishing with a three-game losing streak.

In the NFC North, the Bears were 7-3 when Jay Cutler went out with a broken thumb. They collapsed, gong 1-5 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs. GM Jerry Angelo was fired, in part for not having an adequate backup.

The Colts were a prime example of how a team relied on its quarterback. Peyton Manning missed all 16 games because of a neck injury. The Colts plummeted to 2-14, and the franchise has undertaken an extreme makeover.

The bottom line: don’t fall off the roof, Matthew Stafford.

You worked too hard to get healthy.