Under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons have taken a new-age approach to the mind, body and football soul.
What other teams call the training or medical department, the Falcons have dubbed the athletic-performance department. Marty Lauzon, was promoted to the position of director of sports medicine and performance in January after the team dismissed Jeff Fish.
The team denied a request to interview Lauzon in light of the team’s recent rash of injuries. They elect to have coach Mike Smith, who doesn’t have a medical degree, give injury information and not the team’s main medical person.
At the outset of the 2013 season, the Falcons have been beset with a rash of major injuries.
Defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (torn right Achilles tendon) and fullback Bradie Ewing (separated left shoulder) were the sixth and seventh players added to the team’s injured-reserve list.
Offensive lineman Mike Johnson (ankle surgery), cornerback Saeed Lee (knee), quarterback Sean Renfree (shoulder), tight end Adam Nissley (knee) and tight end Andrew Szczerba (undisclosed) also were on the list.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was placed on short-term injured reserve after he sprained his foot. He could return for Week 11.
Then there are the walking wounded who haven’t been able to perform up to their standards in wide receiver Roddy White (high ankle sprain), cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh, possibly hamstring) and running back Steven Jackson (hamstring that was originally announced as a thigh injury).
“These are all football injuries that have occurred in the last two ballgames,” said Smith, when asked if the recent rash of injuries were preventable.
Smith, who’s in his 31st season of coaching either in the NFL or on the collegiate level, said he has never seen such a rash of injuries. But he quickly went into “coach mode” and deflected their importance.
“But you can’t concern yourself with that,” Smith said. “We’ve got guys that we are prepared to play with in case we have injuries. … We have some young guys who did well in the OTAs, did well in the minicamps and did well in the preseason. We’re going to line up and go play.”
Smith believes that the remaining players will handle well the stunning loss of four key players in one week.
“I don’t think there is any shock factor,” Smith said. “In the NFL, guys are going to get injured. There is going to be a ‘next man up’ mentality, and that’s what we have here.
“We’re going to get some back very shortly. Yes, we lost some guys for the season, but teams all across the league do that. That’s what happens in the NFL. We have to go out there and play.”
The release of Fish over the offeason was surprising because several players credited him with improving their strength, speed and agility.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez credited Fish’s kettle-bell workouts with helping him to continue to play at a high level at age 36 last season.
Fish also oversaw quarterback Matt Ryan’s offseason workouts in 2012 that were credited with his improved strength down the stretch of the season, which ended with the team 10 yards away from the Super Bowl.
The team was not beset with a great deal of serious injuries on Fish’s watch. In 2009, Michael Turner was rushed back from a high-ankle sprain and was lost for the season, while Ryan battled back from turf toe injury.
After Lauzon was promoted, A.J. Neibel, a former assistant, was promoted to head the strength-and-conditioning program. Fish, who was with the Falcons for four seasons, directed all aspects of the Falcons’ physical development, injury prevention, rehabilitation and nutrition programs.
Neibel switched the emphasis from functional movement to cardio and gaining strength through heavy lifting, according to several players.
“You have to build your body up to play this game,” guard Justin Blalock said. “But at the same time, these are two separate headaches. We are not learning new techniques to play football in the weight room. … But maybe if your functional strength is better, if you’re building your body up, you’re less apt to be injured, perhaps. Things of that nature are what we hoping to get out of that.”
The Falcons hopes the added strength will aid them later in the season.
“I believe that we’re a little bit stronger than we were last year,” safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We’ve put up a lot of good numbers in the weight room, and that’s going to help us out over the long haul. Having that training of moving heavy weights underneath our belt will help us out in the latter part of the season.”
The Falcons also used GPS athlete tracking-technology devices from Catapult, an Australian company. Seven other NFL teams also use them to monitor athlete movement, and they let the team know how hard each player is working.
“It puts a number to how you’re feeling,” DeCoud said. “You can see how much ground you’re actually covering. How fast your heart rate was, and they can give an estimated guess on how long it will take for you to get back to 100 percent.
“It puts numbers to things rather than just going off of feel. You have data and numbers to quantify what’s going on in your body.”
But in the violent game of football where collisions happen on every play, neither fancy titles nor statistical data can prevent injuries.