It didn’t garner much fanfare last week when the Cardinals announced additions to their sports performance staff after earlier adding Shea Thompson to the new position of director, football performance.
However, considering the team has had one of the smallest, if not the smallest, groups in that area working with the players, it could be the most significant decision this offseason.
It’s no minor item when five additional hires are made.
Thompson will oversee the department, which resulted in new faces Evan Marcus as the head strength and conditioning coach, Jason Benguche and Everrett Gathron as assistant strength and conditioning coaches and Kyle Sammons as sports science coordinator.
Remaining on staff are longtime head strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris, who will now be the senior reconditioning coordinator, and Mark Naylor, who remains as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
When Phase 1 of the offseason program began Tuesday, coach Jonathan Gannon explained the methodical approach of upgrading this most crucial area that began shortly after he was hired in conjunction with owner Michael Bidwill and general manager Monti Ossenfort.
It’s surely no coincidence that the Eagles, where Gannon coached for the last two seasons, also had a performance staff numbering at least seven people.
Gannon said, “I really like where that room is. I got to watch both sets of groups today and like the pace and the tempo that they were working at. Ultimately, our players already, a couple of them came up to me and said, ‘Man, this is good.’ It’s something that’s a huge aspect of a football team and you have to be thought out and detailed on how you train those guys, so I’m happy where that’s at.”
Noting what Thompson, who was with the 49ers the previous three years, brings to the organization, Gannon said, “His expertise, being a strength coach and then science, medical, really it just streamlines our whole process. It’s pretty common that each team has those guys, and I really liked his expertise, where he came from, how their process was, his knowledge of everything football and what the athlete has to go through and everything working down from the sport.
“That’s a huge piece of how we’re going to develop the whole offseason program, during training camp, during the season, seven-day weeks, five-day weeks, six-day weeks, Monday night games, Thursday night games. That’s a huge part for the health of the players and ultimately to get those guys maximizing themselves and being healthy and developed and ready to play football. So, that was a huge addition for us.”
That is clearly something the Cardinals were not last season and down the stretch of 2021. Last season, the Cardinals had the third-most players in the NFL on reserve/injured at the end of the season with 18. Denver had the most with 23 and Tennessee had 22.
Not coincidentally, the final four teams in the playoffs had a combined 26. The Bengals and Eagles had eight, the 49ers seven and the Chiefs three. Many of those weren’t starters and were young players injured in training camp. For the Eagles, the 22 players that started the season opener all started in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals had only 10.
Tight end Zach Ertz, who suffered a torn ACL last season and is hopeful of being ready for Week 1, likes what he’s seen from the new personnel.
Asked about the amount of injuries the team had in 2022, while acknowledging some can’t be avoided including his own, Ertz said, “What you are trying to prevent are the soft-tissue injuries that linger. And it seems like there is a lot of science and reasoning behind every decision that they’re making in regards to the training schedules outside right now, the lifting schedules right now.
“We haven’t seen the exact practice schedules during OTAs and during summer training camp, but there’s been talk that those are very deliberate and there’s a plan behind each and every time we’re going to be on the field. And they’re not always going to be three-hour practices. Some are going to be quick, some are going to be longer, so it seems like they’re doing everything they can to allow us to be as healthy as possible.”
When he was asked about the recent NFLPA survey that also mentioned players having to pay when they want dinner, Ertz dead-panned, “When I came in here this morning, breakfast was ready for me.”
He then added, “So obviously, everyone wants to make a big deal of the facilities and the report card. But I can see first-hand that there have been improvements already. Obviously, the people that we fired, the amount of people that we’ve hired. And I think this place screams of so much potential, and it’s up to everyone in the building to maximize that.”
Ertz has also been impressed early on with the performance coaches that have been added.
“They’re all great people,” he said. “Obviously, I’m just getting introduced to them and their mentality as strength coaches and the philosophy as coaches, but it seems like every single person they’ve brought in are some of the best in their field, people that are really going to go above and beyond for the players. I can tell being here today and being here all offseason that this place is trending forward and as player I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Reflecting on what Gannon said after being hired two months ago, Ertz concluded, “One of the things that stood out in JG’s initial press conference was just the emphasis and how important everything is about the players and doing everything the staffs within the building in every department can do to help us be the best versions of ourselves.
“And it seems like every single person that they’ve brought in, whether it be the strength staff, whether it be nutrition, things around the building; everything is geared to putting us in the best position to develop as players, people and ultimately if I can get one percent better, that’s going to help the Arizona Cardinals. So it seems like everything that they’re doing right now is geared toward that and it’s exciting to be around.”
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