Why NFL trainers are concerned about the transition from virtual to reality

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Ty Johnson pulls a Jeep in rigorous workout (0:23)

Lions running back Ty Johnson spends his Sunday working out by pulling a Jeep across a parking lot. (0:23)

The workouts inside Todd Durkin's San Diego gym, Fitness Quest 10, have become the stuff of legend.

It started with LaDainian Tomlinson, who brought in Drew Brees, who brought in Darren Sproles, and it has swelled to include other NFL players such as Zach Ertz, Golden Tate, Chase Daniel and Brett Rypien. Brees and Sproles, who announced his retirement in December, are workout maniacs. They push each other so hard, Durkin has had to literally pull the treadmill plug so they'll stop trying to one-up the other in session-capping sprints. It has set the tone for some epic three-hour, will-testing, music-infused throwdowns, occurring upward of five times a week during the offseason.

Or at least that's how it used to be. The gym was shut down in late March -- right about the time the intensity would have been ratcheted up even further in advance of OTAs -- because of the coronavirus pandemic. The players scattered to their respective hometowns and, like many, are working out of their houses and trying to balance all that comes with it.

"I'm encouraging guys by mobile, training them through a phone," Durkin said. "It's definitely a lot different than normal."

Durkin has done his best to keep the competitive juices flowing by coming up with creative challenges such as who can do the most pushups in a day or the most striders around the neighborhood.

"We've been talking a lot of [virtual] smack," he said.

But recreating the experience is impossible because of the variance in individual setups. Some players have big houses with elaborate home gyms, some live in apartments with significantly less equipment. And then there's the absence of the hyperpotent competitive energy only a room full of world-class athletes can create.

The good news is Durkin's guys continue to work. The bad news is not everyone can say the same. And even those who are working out aren't reaching normal standards, with local fields being shut down and Ivan Drago sci-fi training at these high-tech outfits giving way to Rocky's wood cabin methods.

The absence of normal preparation for the NFL season has trainers concerned about the well-being of athletes as the runway leading up to the fall of 2020 shrinks.

The NFL plans to release the 2020 schedule this week with no major changes, outside the absence of international games. The opener is slated for Thursday, Sept. 10. If the timetable is compressed too much, professional trainers warn, athletes will be put in danger, perhaps leading to a spike in injuries.

"If it gets rushed, it gets risky," said Mike Barwis, who trains NFL athletes and also works as strength and conditioning adviser to the New York Mets and as director of sports science for the Detroit Red Wings. "And that's probably my only scare there is, how much time are you going to have?"

Golf carts, beer coolers and backpacks

The NFL's virtual offseason began in late April and there is a training component available, but it lacks uniformity.

The New Orleans Saints have declined to hold online workouts, as coach Sean Payton has entrusted his players to "Show up in July for training camp in the best shape of your life."

Other teams are holding virtual workouts. The Philadelphia Eagles are dividing their players into groups based on the amount of equipment at their disposal: Those who have access to a full gym get something closer to a normal OTA workout, while others with more limited resources have sessions tailored to fit their circumstances. The online training typically runs 45 minutes to an hour.

Teams are allowed to send each player up to $1,500 worth of equipment to assist their at-home workouts. Peletons have been high on player wish lists, though Durkin is steering them in a different direction ("As much as I like Peleton, they need to go out and run and need to get strong," he wrote) and is recommending suspension training equipment, weights and exercise bands. One former NFL trainer suggested giving players Apple watches with the ability to send and monitor workouts.

Eagles safety Rodney McLeod, who turned his garage into a pseudo gym, spent his allotment on kettle bells, a weight vest, medicine balls and hurdles. One video McLeod posted showed him wearing that vest and holding those bells as he squatted onto a beer cooler.

"It's difficult," McLeod said, "because you don't have your gyms that you've had access to and what I'm accustomed to, getting with my trainer and being able to work out and work on the things I need to do to be a better player this year. But I've been around for a while, this isn't my first rodeo working out."

Personal trainers, like their NFL counterparts, are personalizing workouts and uploading them onto apps and secure portals. Whether it's by Zoom call or a spreadsheet, they're guiding training the best they can. And they've been impressed by their clients' ingenuity to get the work in.

"One of my athletes the other day told me he had tied a rope to a golf cart and was pulling a golf cart to get his rows in," EXOS director of pro sports Brent Callaway said. "I've seen athletes fill book bags with books and other objects in order to have a weight vest to lift and jog around with. I will give it to them -- they're being very creative in some of the things they're utilizing around the house."

It has made for some fun social media videos, like the one of Lions running back Ty Johnson pulling a Jeep while wearing his helmet.

While no substitute for the real thing, effort is a big key right now.

"The big thing is that they're working out and keeping the intensity, because what could potentially happen is we could see an alarming number of injuries if guys aren't working out the way they should be," Durkin said.

Added a former NFL team trainer: "You and I both know that some guys are doing nothing, and even the ones that are doing a lot, training with a team is much more intense. So they will all be behind. It will be interesting to see how long this goes. The closer it [comes to] affecting games [possible lost games, preseason or regular season], you will see how much player safety is a priority."

Time is running short

Durkin said he talks with Brees almost daily.

"He's doing fine. He's getting antsy like anybody else," Durkin said. "He's got the kids and he's running around and keeping them ramped up."

One of Durkin's concerns stems from the fact Brees and the rest of his quarterbacks aren't throwing the football -- at least not the way they usually do. Heading into OTAs, his guys typically throw 75 to 100 balls a day. Absent pro receivers to toss the ball to, Brees instead is doing exercises with towels and weighted balls and different resistances to keep his arm, shoulder and core in sync.

"I'm not concerned about their shoulder strength or anything like that, but what I am certainly concerned about is if they haven't thrown a football much and it's now July and it's the first time they're actually throwing to other guys and they're brand new guys, it could look like a Pop Warner practice as far as the timing, the rhythm, all of that," he said. "Normally these kinks are worked out in April and May and now it's July, so we could be behind a little bit and it could be a crash course."

The degree of difficulty for a compressed return varies by position and experience. It is a common belief rookies are going to have a hard time, not just because they'll have a smaller window to adapt but because their transition has been thrown totally off kilter.

"To be ready, to be a pro when you were a rookie, it was usually pretty easy [relatively speaking]: You would just go back to your school or your training facility and keep working out, work out for individual teams, come back home for the draft and then May 1 go visit your team and get ready for rookie minicamp and start the offseason program. None of those things have happened," agent David Canter said. "Most college campuses are shut down so you can't go there, you can't work out there, so you have to figure it out on your own."

Teams are adjusting their expectations for rookies accordingly.

With offensive and defensive linemen in particular, there is a fear that those without proper training will come in overweight.

Big men need more work in the weight room to maintain the necessary power and explosiveness, while speed players require open fields to get in top form. There is limited access to both resources right now.

"If the year starts off late, the league is probably going to push [the season] back just because a guy like me, I go and train for a whole month and half as hard as I can preparing for a conditioning test and training camp type of practices," cornerback Darius Slay said, "and the fact that we can't, the gym is not open because of the virus, it's kind of hard to prepare yourself for something like that."

So how much on-field training do the players need to safely start an NFL season? Barwis said he'd like to see eight weeks, while Durkin said 10 weeks-plus would be ideal.

The clock is ticking.

"We've got to get back to norm by mid-July at the latest," Durkin said.

"If you start squeezing it much less than that, it's getting dangerous as far as what one could physically take at that level."