The only reason the New England Patriots failed to win five straight Super Bowls from 2011-15 was the unstoppable string of injuries to the roster. Well, injuries and the Denver Broncos, but it was mostly the injuries.
Mike Woicik served as the Patriots Strength and Conditioning coach from 2000-10 before taking the same position with the Dallas Cowboys. The Patriots ranked 23rd in the league in health from 2008-10, per Football Outsiders’ “Adjusted Games Lost” metric (AGL), which accounts for how starters and top back-ups are affected by injury for each team.
Harold Nash replaced Woicik from 2011-15, when the Patriots reached five straight AFC Championship Games and two Super Bowls. The Patriots ranked 30th, 19th, 29th, 12th (winning Super Bowl XLIX), and 29th over that span of time, and cumulatively ranked 30th out of the 32 teams. While the Patriots weren’t the healthiest squad under Woicik, ranking 30th in AGL was unacceptable for the Patriots.
As a result, the Patriots parted ways with Nash (who was named the S&C coach of the Detroit Lions, which ranked 14th in AGL) prior to the 2016 season. In his place, the Patriots promoted Moses Cabrera to the leading role in the weight room.
Under Cabrera, the Patriots ranked 8th in the league in AGL in 2016 and won their fifth Super Bowl title in franchise history. What changed?
“I’d say the thing we try to concentrate the most on are the injuries that we feel are most preventable,” head coach Bill Belichick said during the 2016 bye week, “and those being predominantly soft tissue injuries that are a function of training and hydration and nutrition, rest, and things like that. A broken bone or an impact hit that causes a problem, it’s hard to prevent those. Some of those are going to happen, although I do think there is an element of training that comes into play there, too.
“But non-contact injuries, injuries that occur from, again, pulled muscle, from dehydration or fatigue or whatever happens, those are the ones that I think as a coach and as a staff you look back on and say, ‘Could we have done things differently there?’ So yes, some of that involves the individual player, his specific body composition and skill set and demands, and some of it is probably the training that we put him through and so forth, and how we best prepare the players for the workloads that they’re going to have on game day. It’s a long conversation and one that we’ve spent a lot of time on.”
“I know the players work extremely hard on their training as well as their nutrition, hydration, rest, recovery, all the things that go into performance,” Belichick added. “We’re always looking to fine tune those for each individual because they’re all different. We all have different makeups and different little things that can help different players in unique ways, so always trying to stay on top of that. I think our staff has done a good job and the players have done a good job, so hopefully we’ll be able to continue that over the next eight regular season games.”
It’s no coincidence that the Patriots have won the Super Bowl in each season they ranked in the top half of the league in health. It seems like the Patriots have had to overcome endless injuries to the defense and to TE Rob Gronkowski over the past six years.
Teams like the Eagles, Titans, Seahawks, and Bengals have shown an ability to remain healthier than the competition over the years, so it’s clear that health is more than just luck and some teams have better conditioning than others. Hopefully Cabrera’s rookie season wasn’t a fluke and the Patriots are able to remain healthy moving forward.