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How much time should Redskins starters get in preseason under Rivera in 2020?

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Philadelphia Eagles v Washington Redskins Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Whether you look at it over one year, two years, three years or ten years, the Redskins have been among the most injured teams in the NFL. Depending on how you define “most injured” they may rank #1.

Consider, if you will, this return on the simple Google search for “most injured team in NFL”:

We have been reading stories for at least three years about man-games lost, starter snaps lost, and the number of players on IR. It’s gotten so bad that assuming injuries has become a habit among Redskins fans.

It got so bad that Jay Gruden became gun-shy of allowing players to see a significant number of snaps on the field in pre-season games. His injury-cursed tenure in Washington seemed to be defined by what happened to Jordan Reed last August, in the third pre-season game against the Falcons. In that game, Reed was supposed to come off the field when the offensive drive ended early in the second quarter, but on a 3rd & 6 play, Reed let a well-thrown pass from Case Keenum go right through his hands. Not wanting that to be the final play of his pre-season, Reed asked Gruden to let him get one more series, and Gruden relented. On Reed’s second snap of the following series, he caught a pass on 3rd & 7 to make the first down. Had he not been hit in the head, knocking off his helmet, concussing him and ending his season and possibly his career, it’s likely that Gruden would have pulled Reed after the play. Instead, Reed never saw the football field again in a Redskins uniform, and a nail was driven into Jay Gruden’s coffin as head coach in DC.


Related

Understanding Injuries in the NFL Part 1

Understanding Injuries in the NFL Part 2

Understanding Injuries in the NFL Part 3


A variety of potential factors have been blamed for the high rate of injury among Redskins players.

Some have pointed to the field at FedEx Stadium as the most likely culprit - a question that Andrew York addressed in his “Understanding Injuies in the NFL” series published here on Hogs Haven last year.

Others have pointed to the Redskins personnel decisions; the franchise is seen by some to take too many chances on players with previous injury history. In an article published in April, the Washington Times argued that the signing of free agents with injury histories — Ronald Darby, Sean Davis, Thomas Davis, and Richard Rodgers — continues a pattern seen under Bruce Allen of gambling on the upside potential of players with questionable health status, setting the stage for inevitable time lost.

The Redskins training and medical staffs have been the target of a lot of criticism from many quarters, and one of Rivera’s first steps after being hired was to see that long-time Redskins head trainer Larry Hess was shown the door and that former Panthers head trainer Ryan Vermillion was hired to take charge of the Redskins training department. In early January the franchise also announced Dr. Kevin Wilk as the team’s new medical consultant, saying that Wilk would report directly to Head Athletic Trainer Ryan Vermillion.

A number of critics pointed to Jay Gruden’s “soft” practices and relative lack of live hitting in practice as a major contributor to the annual butcher’s bill of injuries. I did a little bit of Googling to find commentary on Ron Rivera’s practice and training camp philosophies, but nothing jumped off the page at me. Ron’s reputation would lead me to believe that he will have disciplined practices that are closer to “old school” NFL philosophies than those of Jay Gruden, but we may have to wait and see. At least one article published on the Panther’s fan site, Cat Scratch Reader, indicated that a high level of injuries were not the underlying cause of Carolina’s poor showing in 2019.

The Redskins organization has been looking for answers to the injury riddle for quite some time. Consider this except from a Richmond Times-Dispatch article published in May last year:

At this year’s NFL owners meetings, one session was devoted to health and safety, which included a presentation of injury data from teams.

The most injured team in 2018? The same as the year before: The Washington Redskins.

And for the second year in a row, the Redskins are trying to do something about it.

During last year’s offseason, the Redskins flew their medical personnel to Europe, to review the methods being used by top international soccer clubs, who have to keep their players fresh over a long season that includes multiple leagues and international series.

The result was a number of new techniques and devices added to Redskins Park, including an ice machine that made ice out of Gatorade.

It didn’t work.

So after another injury plagued campaign, Redskins team president Bruce Allen brought in outside consultants who are experts in the field, and asked them to take a look at everything related to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injuries.

Allen said the Redskins wanted to leave the slate as blank as possible.

“We have all the data on the injuries, and we gave them all of it,” he said. “We asked them to see if there was a rhyme or reason.

“We didn’t want any preconceived answers.”

And?

“Ironically, they’re so unrelated it’s almost impossible.”

Coach Jay Gruden offered this paraphrasing of the report: “Gosh, that’s too bad, man. That’s unfortunate.”

To the average fan, leading the league in injuries two years in a row feels like it should be impossible. Inside the Redskins building, the sentiment is similar.

But if there’s a common theme or fix, no one has been able to pinpoint it. There were a number of smaller recommendations, but nothing big enough to address the fact that the Redskins put 26 players on injured reserve in 2017, and 28 in 2018.

As we all know, the 2019 season ended with similar injury results as the two seasons that preceded it.

Gruden, for his part, seemed to be trying anything and everything to improve the situation. He re-arranged practices; he tried more hitting in practice; he tried less hitting in practice; he probably resorted to a bit of Haitian Vodou for all I know. None of it worked.

A difficult tightrope that all head coaches have to walk is the issue of how much time starters should spend on the field during preseason games. These days, the answer from most coaches is: “not much”.

Starters, for the most part, sit out the fourth (and final) pre-season game, which is used as a tie-breaker for deciding the last roster spot or two, and auditioning players as late-season injury replacements. Most teams send their starters out for a series or two in Preseason Games 1 & 2, with the focus being on the third preseason contest, when starters often spend as much as the entire first half on the field, and occasionally more.

COVID-19

With the loss of OTAs and mini-camps to COVID-19, training camp and pre-season become potentially much more important than in normal years. Coaches may have to tread even more carefully in achieving the balance between preparation for the season and injury prevention. It may not be clear whether the key to resolving that tension lies in putting starters on the field more, or keeping them sidelined.

New offensive and defensive schemes

Another factor to consider is that this 2020 Redskins team will have a number of key starters who have limited time on an NFL field, a number of players who will be starting for the Redskins for the first time, and that only a couple of players have any experience playing under the offensive and defensive coordinators. In other words, there’s a lot of learning to be done, and there should be great value in going up against competition wearing different colored uniforms in a live game. This argues for keeping starters on the field longer in this year’s pre-season games.

Remember that Ron Rivera’s rookie season as a head coach in Carolina was 2011 — a season affected by a lockout, without a pre-season. Rivera often references that year and the lessons he learned from it. Rivera, himself, seems to feel confident that his 2011 experience helped prepare him for the challenges he’ll face this year as the new head man in Washington.

After watching Jay Gruden for six pre-seasons, I suspect that his approach would have been to continue to keep players in bubble wrap as much as possible. Jay seemed to have grown increasingly afraid of player injuries over the course of his tenure (and not without cause).

But Jay isn’t here anymore. Ron Rivera is. What should he do? What will he do?

I couldn’t find a handy source that immediately told me how many snaps the starting units for each team spent on the field in preseason games, so comparing Ron Rivera to the rest of the league wasn’t something I could do easily. Instead of investing a lot of time in a search for good information, I decided to put together some usable information quickly and simply.

I looked at the number of snaps that most starting offensive linemen were on the field for the Redskins and Panthers for the third pre-season game for each of the last 4 years. Here are the results:

This extremely simplified analysis doesn’t shed a ton of light on the question at hand. It indicates that Ron Rivera has tended to leave his starting offense on the field a bit more than Jay Gruden (35 snaps vs 31 on average; high of 52 for Ron vs 42 for Jay; low of 17 vs 12).

On this very shaky statistical basis combined with Ron Rivera’s reputation, I’m guessing that Rivera would be inclined to give the starters some extra work. At the same time, Ron has said he’s all about ‘competition’, so getting quality time on the field for as many players as possible would seem to support that principle, and, to be honest, expectations for the Redskins in 2020 are not high, and Rivera is not likely to face any pressure from Dan Snyder based on this season’s win-loss record. An extra series for the offensive and defensive units in each pre-season game probably won’t be the difference between success and failure this season. In some ways, the entire 2020 season might be seen as one long, extended preparation for 2021.

I don’t think the answers are clear-cut; if they were, head coaches wouldn’t all be as skittish as they are to put their multi-million dollar stars on the field for meaningless warm up games every year. Should the Redskins starters be on the field more this year to help make up for the lack of team activities in May and June, and to insure they are ready to execute new offensive and defensive schemes? Should they, because of the possible lack of conditioning due to COVID-19 restrictions, be on the field less to protect them from injury? Does the risk outweigh the benefits for the 2020 Redskins, whom most pundits are projecting to finish at or near the bottom of the league again this season?

I guess Ron Rivera gets paid the big bucks to know the answers to those questions.

Poll

Which of the following best describes your attitude towards the number of snaps that the Redskins starters should play in the 2020 pre-season?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    They need to be on the field for a greater number of snaps to get prepared for the season.
    (182 votes)
  • 6%
    They need to be on the field for a smaller number of snaps to protect against injury.
    (27 votes)
  • 53%
    There’s no reason to do things any differently this year. Rivera should just do what he’s always done/
    (237 votes)
446 votes total Vote Now