The Fitness Principle

Optimum Performance: Special teams gunners have it rough in the NFL

"In a dangerous sport (like the NFL), he may have the most dangerous role," last Sunday's New York Times described the job of Jets "gunner or flier " Ellis Lankster.

The gunner is asked to evade one opponent, sometimes two, while sprinting downfield ahead of everyone else (on kickoffs and punts) for the privilege of hurling his body into a returner."

Former NFL gunner and current CBS analyst Steve Tasker said the mission of the gunner was like "fighting your way up a down escalator that's very crowded -- and only having five seconds to do it." Tasker played 13 seasons in the NFL, mostly with Buffalo.

In 2009, the NFL changed the rules for wedge blocking (a wall of players) by limiting the number of adjoining players to two. For the 2011 season, the rules changed again by moving the site of the kickoff up 5 yards to the 35-yard line shorten the field and possibly avoid returns. The kick coverage team also was held to a 5-yard running start, rather than the previous 15 yards.

According to Edgeworth Economics, the number of concussions that occurred on kickoffs decreased by about 43 percent from 2010 to 2011. In 2010, there were 2,539 kickoffs with 2,033 returns versus 2,572 and 1,375 in 2011. The 5-yard rule change saw touchbacks double to 43 percent, while only 53 percent of kickoffs were returned.

The Elias Sports Bureau noted that touchdown returns on kickoffs dropped to nine in 2011 from 23 in 2010.

From 1993 to 2000, former New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals player J.J. McCleskey was a gunner. "My job," said McCleskey, "was to go down violently and split the wedge to force the ball carrier to bounce outside." During his seven NFL seasons, McCleskey sustained several concussions and developed lumbar (lower back) associated sciatic nerve problems that still bother him. 

But, the worst gunner injury McClesky witnessed occurred when one of his counterparts crashed into his team's wedge on kickoff coverage and was knocked out cold.

In one game, McClesky was fined by the NFL for hitting the wedge too low with his 5-foot-8 frame versus the two wedge players he impacted who stood 6-8. McCleskey appealed his fine to the league and won his case. The Saints current gunners are Will Herring, Rafael Bush, Corey White, Ramon Humber and Kevin Reddick.

Regarding NFL injuries in general, the Associated Press in 2012 provided data from the NFL's internal injury surveillance system, which "classifies injuries as minor (a player missed eight days or fewer, including injuries that didn't knock a player out of a game), moderate (eight to 21 days missed) or major (more than 21 days missed)."

Going into last Monday's night victory against the Dolphins, the Saints listed seven players as inactive, including receiver Lance Moore, who suffered a hand injury the previous week against the Cardinals. There is no question the injury bug has cut down quite a few key players on the Saints, particularly the defense.

However, credit at this point should go to Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan for playing the hand he has been dealt quite well.

The New York Giants (0-4) continue to be plagued by injuries -- noting as of Sept. 30, 12 injuries ranging from the thumb to the hip, knee, Achilles tendon, back and hamstring. One Giants player -- defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins -- has knee and Achilles tendon issues.

Giants Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee is considering season-ending right hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. He missed part of the preseason recovering from surgery on his left hip. Both injuries may place his career in jeopardy.

Injuries are piling up as well in New England (4-0). Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles tendon in the Patriots' 30-23 win over Atlanta last Monday night.

"I think he's (Wilfork) got a pretty serious injury," New England coach Bill Belichick told the media, "and it's probably unlikely that he'll be able to play again this year."

The Saints held out five players from Wednesday's practice, including safety Roman Harper (knee) and Moore, both starters. The Chicago Bears, the Saints' next opponent, held out two players, cornerback Charles Tillman (groin and knee) and receiver Brandon Marshall (foot).

One can tell that teams such as the Saints and Patriots compared to the Giants can have a high level of injuries but polar opposite records.

Looks like coaching and luck may be the difference.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He's the Executive Director of the Fitness Principle with Mackie Shilstone at East Jefferson General Hospital. Contact him at mackieshilstone.com.

 

Mackie Spotlight

EJGH’s very own Mackie Shilstone, Executive Director of the Fitness Principle, is in New York working with Serena Williams as she goes for another U.S. Open title. As Williams’s Fitness Coach, Mackie will be part of the team preparing her for matches throughout the tournament. To give everyone a behind-the-scenes look at how Williams prepares for every opponent, Mackie is writing a daily postcard for Nola.com detailing all the day’s happenings. Check back daily for updates. 

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