East Jefferson General Hospital

Damage Control Week 16: New Orleans Saints vs. Dallas Cowboys
Written by Mackie Shilstone   

Practice makes perfect is phrase that brings back memories for me of the sixth grade, when I had to continue to recite the math tables to make them become indelibly ingrained in my brain forever. In sports, I have heard it said more often than not "perfect practice makes for a perfect outcome."

And a Navy Seal friend of mine says he lives by the concept of "train like you fight and fight like you train, and train and train" - one of my favorites.

Last Sunday, The New York Times ran a story in its sports section, "In the N.F.L., Practice Can Make Perfect, but Then So Can the Lack of It," to discuss the theories on just what level of practice is required "to become a true expert at something."

The Times' story by Sam Borden, cites several philosophies, such as the one espoused by the writer Jim Collins (he is not named in the story) that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary, while sharing another strategy that "pegs the human threshold at 50,000 chunks or units of memory, being devoted to a particular skill," to bring about that expert designation.

I personally believe that you do not even approach the "expert realm," until you have been researching and applying a body of knowledge to one defined focus of concentration (skill set), and cross Collins' 10,000-hour threshold.

Based on practice participation by players in various sports, the NFL does have, according to Borden, "the highest practice-to-games ration of any professional sport - baseball players might not practice as many times in a full season as the NFL does in a week." I can attest to that fact having traveled with the San Francisco Giants between 1989-1999.

It gets down to effective asset management of the players by their respective team's GM, coaches, trainers, and medical staff, based on the liability the player poses in dollar cost to the team in salary and benefits. For instance, the Saints' organization is obligated by a contractual arrangement to Drew Brees for $100 million (although all of it is not guaranteed) for five years, while the Los Angeles Dodgers just signed pitcher Zack Grienke to a six-year, $147 million deal (guaranteed money).

Brees has a risk exposure to injury (minus practice time) in 80 regular season games (16 games per season x 5 years) over his five-year contract. While over in LA, Grienke has a risk exposure to injury as a starter of 194 games (starter on a five-day rotation, 32.4 games per 162 game season x six years) over the six years of his contract.

If you compare the damage control potential for the QB due to collisions in pro football versus the potential for overuse injuries to a starting MLB pitcher, then you must ask yourself the question, who is more exposed to potential injury risk by either too much or too little practice?

In the case of the NFL QB, practice is critical not only to developing timing with his receivers during the offseason and preseason, but as well for maintenance of timing during the season.

As predicted in my column last week, Brees came out of his temporary slump with perfect timing with his receivers against Tampa Bay.

NOLA.com/Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan summed it up best in his lMonday column: "It was his (Brees) best, most efficient performance of the season. He's had games with as many touchdowns but those efforts were tarnished by interceptions. He's had games with few interceptions but not as many touchdowns."

Practice can have a detrimental effect when a player nursing one injury sustains another injury. The impact of this multiple-injury scenario can have negative overtones both to the player and the team as well.

Just this last week in preparation for the home game against the Bucks, offensive tackle Zach Strief did not practice Wednesday or Thursday and was out in the game against Tampa due to an ankle injury added to his pre-existing groin injury. His backup Charles Brown was placed last Saturday on the injured reserve list by the Saints and out for the remaining games of this season with a knee injury. "So who you gonna call," as the theme song for the movie Ghost Busters says. How about guard Ricky Henry off the Saints' practice squad. Henry had only seen one regular game in the NFL while with the Bears. Rest and rehab, as opposed to practice, is exactly what Stief needs to survive when called upon. He already knows how to play the game of pro football.

Practices in the NFL late in the season resemble "glorified jog-throughs," according to Giants Coach Tom Coughlin. By the way, the Giants were shut out in Atlanta 34-0 much like the Saints shut out Tampa Bay 41-0 last Sunday.

Also keep in mind just how important the scout team - the unit that simulates the tendencies of the current opponent - is to game preparation each week in the NFL. With an eight-man practice squad, if a starter is unable to practice Coughlin says, "that means the next guy takes his snaps, so who runs the scout team." Good question coach. But that is what you are paid to figure out.

I have an alternative to practice for Coach Coughlin to consider and it came from a recent story in his hometown newspaper, The New York Times. The article discussed research pointing to the fact that "a state of mindfulness" can be achieved by having users relax with their eyes closed while focused on their breathing and releasing random thoughts (who says football players have random thoughts). In as little as five minutes a day of intense inactivity a "happier outlook is yours for the taking."

I might add that the article cites a 2012 study led by a team of researchers from the University of Washington, who examined the effects of mindfulness training on multi-tasking (something NFL players do like hitting and tackling) individuals. It turns out that "not only did they (those participants that obtained mindfulness training) report fewer negative emotions ...but their ability to concentrate improved significantly."

In other words, see it, believe it.

Can't you see at the team film study Monday where the entire Saints team closes their eyes, empties their negative thoughts, then focuses on their breathing for five minutes? Before you know it, you see the next victory at hand. All that is left to do is to go out and execute the game plan and win, hopefully for the remaining two games of the season and beyond.

The Saints (6-8) are a long shot to make the playoffs, but also need to win their last two games on the road Sunday in Dallas and at home in week 17 against Carolina.

On Wednesday of this week, Saints interim coach Joe Vitt reported that fullback Jed Collins did not practice due to toe and knee issues. It is not uncommon, depending on which injury came first, to see a toe injury precipitate another injury up or down the kinetic chain such as the knee due to a tracking or misalignment issue. Stief, who also did not practice Wednesday, may also be an example of this "kinetic chain disconnect," since he sustained a groin injury several weeks ago, and now has an ankle injury.

And speaking of groin injuries, which are now popping up with the Saints, Ryan Lee, a Saints' practice squad member had surgery Wednesday on his groin (maybe an adductor tear or a sports hernia?). Cornerback Patrick Robinson was also limited in practice with a groin injury - a sign now that the fatigue of a long season may be catching up to the legs of susceptible players.

Saints fifth-round draft pick cornerback Corey White was placed on the injured reserve list with a season-ending knee injury.

The Cowboys, the Saints' Sunday opponent in Dallas, were not immune to groin injuries. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who was out against last week against Pittsburgh, did not practice Wednesday with a groin strain. He was joined by running back DeMarco Murray (foot injury) and linebacker Ernie Simms (concussion), who did not practice.

Cornerback Morris Claiborne, who was held out of action last Sunday with a concussion when the Cowboys' played Pittsburgh, was anticipated to do "a little something prior to Wednesday's practice," according to Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett. Wide receiver Dez Bryant was limited in practice with a finger injury that did not seem to stop him last week against Pittsburgh where he scored a touchdown, and according to Garrett, "(Dez) made a couple other plays in the game that really made a difference for us."

Thursday brought better news for the Saints regarding Strief's status, which was classified as " limited in practice," versus not practicing Wednesday. Collins still did not practice again with his knee/toe injuries.

Over in Dallas, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff was out for the second day of practice nursing his groin injury.

Based on the Thursday injury reports for the Saints and Cowboys, the Saints seem to come out on top with a fewer number of injured players and those with injuries who participated in some form of practice. But, from what you have learned about practice during the season in the NFL, many times less is more when you consider that everyone knows how to play the game. The game in Dallas on Sunday comes down to the Saints, who are playing for a breakeven season and respect versus the Cowboys who are still in a three-way tie in the playoff hunt, the first team that blinks will lose.