How the NFL created a potential ‘medical nightmare’ with Miami Dolphins’ schedule

·4 min read

Hurricane Irma caused $50 billion in damage and killed dozens as it carved a devastating path through the Southeast.

It also wrecked the Miami Dolphins’ 2017 season.

After the megastorm washed out the Dolphins’ opener, they had to play 16 weeks in a row to close out the season.

By November, they were gassed — due, in no small part, to a Week 4 trip to London.

After starting the year 4-4, the Dolphins lost six of their last eight games — outscored by 49 points during that stretch. Granted, relying on Jay Cutler after Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL didn’t help, but the Dolphins still entered Week 15 with a realistic path to the playoffs.

Then the wheels fell off.

We bring up this largely forgettable chapter in franchise history for a reason — and not to agitate Dolphins fans.

There’s a real chance something similar happens in 2021, even if a named storm doesn’t hit the peninsula.

The Dolphins for the first time will have a Week 14 bye, which means for the first time they will play 13 straight games to open the season.

And midway through that grueling three-month stretch? A 20-hour round-trip flight to London, where the Dolphins will face the Jaguars on Oct. 17.

But unlike the Jags, Jets and Falcons — who also play abroad in 2021 — the Dolphins don’t get a week to recover when they get back. Even once they hit that point in their schedule, Miami will have seven more games to play before a getting a break.

So while other teams have, on paper, a “tougher” schedule than the Dolphins this year, no team will have a more physically demanding fall, a result of the NFL’s decision to add a 17th game to its season and export the Dolphins to the UK.

“I think there’s certainly a competitive disadvantage,” said Dr. John Wilckens, who chairs Johns Hopkins’ sports medicine division and also serves as Navy football’s team physician.

“... Thirteen straight weeks is a long time. We look at our bye weekend and try to formulate surgeries, how to keep them out an extra week so they’re a little bit more ready to come back. Those are all things, when you’re playing 13 straight weeks, you don’t have that luxury. You’re stuck. You’re in the grill and you’re just churning and you don’t get a break.”

It’s hard not to see hypocrisy in the NFL’s decision to expand the season.

The league insists player health and safety is a major priority, and yet the money was too good not to go to 18 weeks. Commissioner Roger Goodell counters that criticism with data showing that the preseason has a higher rate of injuries than than the regular season. Accordingly, the NFL trimmed the exhibition slate by a game when it expanded the regular season.

“What we are actually doing is following the data and following the science to make sure that we are doing things [well] both from a health and safety standpoint as well as seeking to get better in every way,” Goodell said in March.

What’s more, the Dolphins didn’t see a huge spike in season-ending injuries even with their marathon 2017 campaign.

Nine players went on injured reserve during the regular season — just two more than the year before and three fewer than the year that followed.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be an impact.

Wilckens believes three months of uninterrupted football increases the odds that players will miss games due to soft tissue injuries that worsen without rest.

“All of those weigh in in a big way, if you go 13 straight weeks without a break,” Wilckens said. “I think the coaching staff and the athletic training staff and the doctors need to sit down and look at the schedule and say, ‘Man, oh man,’ especially when injuries start accumulating, try to come up with an intelligent way to manage it. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”

Particularly with a trip overseas.

“It’s always a big medical nightmare,” said Wilckens, who experienced firsthand the impact that international travel has on a football team.

“We played Notre Dame in Ireland [in 2012] and then we came home and played at Penn State, and our kids were absolutely exhausted,” he said. “That was just horrible. .... It was an opportunity for kids to play overseas against Notre Dame and then play Penn State, which is a storied program. We didn’t want to turn down those opportunities. But you spend all of your energy in the first two games of the season and then you tank the rest of the season. It’s hard to recover.”

Tank is a dirty word in Dolphins camp, of course, and Brian Flores is determined to let nothing become an excuse for failure.

Plus, there have been plenty of teams who not only survived a long stretch of consecutive games, but thrived.

Exhibit A: Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Their bye fell on Week 13 in 2020. And that late break actually might have helped them. After an inconsistent first 12 weeks, they rested up and reeled off wins in their final eight games — including Super Bowl 55.

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