April 18, 2016 - Dr. David Chao
Monday Morning MD: Biggest deal for schedule release is the bye week
Why is the schedule release even a big deal? After all, opponents and home/away locations are already known. Much is made of strength of schedule but only two games are variable based on position of finish. Six within division, four vs rotated AFC division and four vs rotated NFC division are fixed for years to come. Just two in-conference opponents in another division with same place finish are variable. Besides divisional rivals, the Cowboys have long known they were playing the NFC North and the AFC North in 2016. Only their 4th place division finish has them matched with 4th place 49ers and Buccaneers. Despite already knowing opponents, everyone eagerly looks at the NFL schedule as soon as it is released. Fans get excited, circle big matchups, note night games and perhaps schedule a road trip. Media pundits start picking wins and losses and prognosticate season records. Schedule release is also a big deal for everyone employed by the NFL. What do medical staffs and those who work for clubs look at? General managers, coaches, staffers, players and wives all look for different things, but the common thread is that everyone, including doctors, looks for the bye week. In the regularity of the NFL, any schedule alteration is looked at first. Chargers GM Tom Telesco said the bye week “is the only thing I look at right away”. It is the extra week to work with when it comes to pre-existing or new injuries. As a former NFL team physician, I would agree. The bye is the first thing I looked at. Not because it was my only free weekend during the season, but it was important to know when the bye is to use the off week to your advantage. Often we might ask a player who needed an in-season procedure to hold on until the bye week to have surgery in order to not miss any games. It also provides the extra week to rest/rehab injuries. A team never wants its bye week too early or too late. In 1999, my team essentially did not have a bye as it was the first week of the season. Currently, the bye weeks are between weeks 4-13. The Packers and Eagles have to feel their Week 4 bye is too early for their liking. They finish with 13 straight games without a break. The next thing team doctors look at is how the schedule affects their medical practice. Friday departures, weekday games, and late returns impact patient schedules. Yes, team physicians have “day jobs” and the travel affects them. Contrary to popular belief, no NFL doctor solely works for the club. In fact, typically less than 5% of their income is derived from the team. The weekday disruption is a major factor. A Thursday night game meant I had to clear my Thursday afternoon to be at the stadium at least three hours before the game and then move my Friday morning surgeries to be available for the routine day after game player injury check. A Sunday night game makes for a very late return home and could wipe out the Monday workday. Head coaches make their team’s daily schedules and they too look for aberrations to the regularity of the NFL. Bye week, Monday/Thursday games, Sunday night games, London and coast to coast travel with late night/early morning returns all disrupt the routine that is the NFL. When a team plays Monday, the Friday practice is called a Thursday schedule. West coast teams have to decide on when to make it a three-day road trip and depart on Friday. East coast teams have to deal with getting home at 4am from a routine Sunday day game on the west coast. For example, the Patriots are known for staying on the west coast for the week if they have back-to-back cross-country travel. Players peek at the bye week to see when they can get home to visit family. However, in their “one game at a time world” the opener is the first thing that comes to mind. Then perhaps they peek at contests with special meaning: primetime, rivalry, hometown return, former club, etc. The wives look at the bye week as well but then go straight to the holiday schedule. Is daddy home for Christmas? How will the family adapt Thanksgiving plans? Equipment guys look forward to seeing the bye week as they work with expanded rosters throughout training camp and the bye is their first and only break. Their attention then turns to which games will be in cold weather as they make their special preparations. The bye week is the common thread that everyone looks at when the schedule is released. Team medical personnel is no exception.