It’s rare that a team’s training staff makes headlines for positive reasons, but the Minnesota Vikings’ staff’s performance has been praised multiple times over the past month. The first praise came when the Vikings ranked first overall in the NFLPA’s first team report card, where players assessed the quality of working conditions for each team. Among other factors, Minnesota’s players rated their strength staff and training room as A-plus. The Miami Dolphins were the only other team to earn an A-plus in those two categories.
On the strength side, the players reported that the strength coaches “go above and beyond to support them.” They said the same of the training staff, noting that it “was a welcome change from the previous regime.”
That welcome change being referenced was the switch from former head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman to current executive director of player health and performance Tyler Williams, who previously worked with the Los Angeles Rams. Williams leads a staff that includes head athletic trainer Uriah Myrie and director of player performance Josh Hingst.
A dramatic improvement in 2022
Williams came from a Rams staff that was at the cutting edge of injury prevention and recovery, and consistently performed highly. Football Outsiders tracks a metric that they call “Adjusted Games Lost,” which tracks the number of games each team lost a starter due to injury. Williams came from a Rams staff that consistently ranked highly in this metric. They were in the top 10 from 2016 to 2021.
That success helped Williams be named Assistant Athletic Trainer of the Year after the 2020 season after leading the charge on Cam Akers‘ extremely fast recovery from an Achilles’ injury. The metric was a place the Vikings struggled in 2020 and 2021, ranking 16th overall in 2020, and just 21st in 2021. Those results saw an instant turnaround under Williams, who led the Vikings to a fifth-place finish in AGL in 2022. LA’s injury prevention success ended after Williams’ departure. The Rams were the second-most injured team in 2022.
Many factors, including luck, go into player injuries, so it’s certainly not definitive that Williams’ move to the Vikings is the reason for these changes. However, there is reason to believe — based on the Rams’ successes and Minnesota’s turnaround — that Williams and his staff had a tangible impact on the Vikings’ injury rate in 2022.
In another metric to gauge team injuries, Dr. Matt Provencher calculates what he calls a “Banged Up Score” for Fox every week of the season. It’s a snapshot in time for each team rather than the season-long AGL, and the Vikings showed out as remarkably healthy week after week. They ranked among the top-eight healthiest teams every single week between Week 1 and Week 17. While they finally fell out of the top 10 in Week 18, they still ranked among the top half of the league at 13th overall. They were fourth in the metric among the 12 teams playing on Wild Card Weekend.
Because they are typically part of the backdrop to NFL conversations, rather than at the forefront, there is not a lot of information on the methodology that the training staff uses to keep players healthy. There were a few glimpses into the strategy this season. One of the most talked about was how the Vikings addressed travel to London for their Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints.
Williams discussed the travel plans with the media, noting that Minnesota planned to travel to London later in the week, on Thursday, to prevent them from fully acclimating to the time change. The intent was to keep them on the Central time zone so they would also be prepared for the following week’s game against the Chicago Bears. The strategy seemed to work, as the Vikings were able to win both games.
In an interview with the Vikings’ website through their podcast, Williams talked about his experience with the Rams, where he was able to find useful data through tracking information, and combining that with nutrition, player feedback, and practice habits to optimize player loading and preparation, creating an individual plan for each player. That combination showed during training camp, where the team gave many players rest days for load management reasons and rarely played starters during the preseason games.
Setting Up New Additions for Success
The Vikings are betting on their training staff with their major signings so far in 2023. Byron Murphy suffered a season-ending back injury in 2022. And Minnesota desperately needs cornerback help, so they are going to rely on him to stay healthy in 2023.
Minnesota sigend Marcus Davenport to a one-year prove-it deal, adding to their edge rush room in 2023. However, he has had an injury-plagued career. Davenport has never played more than 600 snaps in a season. He has missed games with injury in every season of his career, including foot injuries in 2018 and 2019, an arm injury in 2020, a shoulder injury in 2021, and an ankle injury in 2022. The Vikings hope that Williams and his staff will be able to construct a plan to keep Davenport healthy this upcoming season.
New tight end Josh Oliver has also had injuries in his past, suffering season-ending injuries in 2019 and 2020. Oliver has already benefitted from an NFL training room, transforming his body from primarily a receiving TE coming out of college into becoming one of the league’s best blockers at his position. Minnesota’s staff will be tasked with helping him maintain that performance.
The Vikings appear to have made dramatic improvements to their player health and performance in just one season under executive director Tyler Williams. His staff uses sports science and other factors to craft individual plans for players, and those plans resulted in the Vikings becoming one of the least-injured NFL teams in 2022.
The team doubled down on that performance in free agency, where all three of their biggest signings: Byron Murphy, Marcus Davenport, and Josh Oliver, have significant injury histories. The team is making a bet that Williams’ methods will keep them, and the rest of the team, healthy and performing at their highest levels in 2023 and beyond.