Recovery both physical and mental
TEMPE, Ariz. -- The life of an NFL player from July until January is a structured matrix of meetings, practices, massages, meals and weightlifting. There are reminders at every corner -- calendars in locker rooms, phone alarms buzzing and digital clocks strategically placed throughout the facility.
When the season comes to an abrupt end, the schedules come down and the alarms are turned off. But the internal clock doesn't stop.
For the first couple of weeks after the Arizona Cardinals' season ended, the internal clock was tackle Eric Winston's worst enemy. It kept him on the schedule he was committed to in the regular season.
It would wake Winston in the middle of the night, making him think he was late for a meeting. Then he'd look at a real clock and realize he didn't have another practice until minicamp in May. And back to sleep he'd go.
"After you scare yourself a couple times, you talk to yourself a little bit and say you don't have to be anywhere," Winston said. "That fast-paced kind of life for seven months, when it suddenly stops, sometimes it's not even physical. It's a mental decompression that has to go on."
Recovering from the season isn't just about healing the aches and pains or getting surgeries and rehab done. It's also about easing the mind back into everyday life. For more than half the year, football players are focused on plays, game plans and audibles. "I think it takes more time for your mind to realize that there's not a game this week," Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "But I feel like I've got a good balance."
Starting the process
Winston said his mind is on overdrive during the season -- to the point that he can't even read. He has tried on plane rides to games or during his spare time on road trips, but he just can't concentrate. Since the season finished, he has read "No Easy Day," "David and Goliath," "The Trident," "Duty" and Tom Clancy's "Command Authority" (Clancy is one of Winston's favorite authors). Forget the bumps, bruises and breaks. The brain takes its own beating -- and we're not talking concussions, either.
"It takes a little time to adjust anytime you stop," Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "You get in a routine and you're working so hard at it that, anytime you stop, it takes a little bit of an adjustment. It takes a few weeks to get back to normal and get healed up and kind of rejuvenate yourself to get ready to go again.
If they don't tune out, if they don't have time to let their brain essentially go to mush, they have to deal with psychological issues as well as burnout [and] just everything that comes with that.Brett Bartholomew, performance specialist, on NFL players taking a break after the season
"Obviously physically, you definitely can need that time to let your body heal up. But mentally, it's just as important to decompress and let everything settle in and learn from it and move forward. It takes a little time to process so you can move forward."
Brett Bartholomew, a performance specialist at Phoenix-based EXOS, formerly known as Athletes' Performance, said decompressing mentally from the season is sometimes more important than recovering physically.
"If they don't tune out, if they don't have time to let their brain essentially go to mush, they have to deal with psychological issues as well as burnout [and] just everything that comes with that," said Bartholomew, who has trained Detroit's Matthew Stafford, Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Miami's Richie Incognito, Kansas City's Dontari Poe and Chicago's Julius Peppers. "With burnout comes diminished interest in what they're doing, fatigue, irritability. So they risk a high level of those things that can impact their training down the road if they don't.
"We encourage people to get away from that as much as they can directly after the season."
Team or family?
Ask any player during the season which people they spend more time with, and the answer is nearly unanimous.
The NFL locker room doubles as a family room, with the players' stools in front of their lockers becoming their favorite recliner as they entertain each other. The families of the players, however, sacrifice a great deal. Wives often play the roles of mom and dad and sometimes live in a different state than their husbands. The most their kids might see their dad is on TV or on the field on Sundays.
Winston's wife, Jenny, doesn't expect him to come home after work and be Mr. Mom. But Winston understands that his kids need his attention. To them, he's just Dad.
"You're going to have to play," Winston said, adding, "Your kids don't care how long you've been at work."
Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon said football takes a backseat to his wife and three children when he is at home. Family is his way of disconnecting from the sport temporarily. "Their conversations aren't about football," Lenon said. "I mean, they think it's cool and all that Dad plays and everything, but that's not what their conversations are about. They're talking about a toy that they want, what they did on a video game, things of that nature."
Lenon might be a throwback to the days when the NFL wasn't as demanding.
Hall of Fame defensive back Darrell Green treated his job with the Washington Redskins as just that -- a job. It was 9-to-5 to him. He left early during the season and was home in time for dinner. "I was already dealing with the kids [during the season]," said Green, who played for the Redskins from 1983 to 2002. "I couldn't take them to school all the time, but I was still getting to the evening events. I was still going to the recitals in the evening. I was still home for dinner. I was just living a normal life.
"Maybe I'm the crazy one. I just lived a normal life. I didn't see it as something that it wasn't."
After the season, Green kept on cutting the grass, getting the kids up for school and going to church, but he also had time to play golf on top of his two workouts a day.
Back to reality
Now, one of the toughest parts for players is reacclimating to their families.
"It's kinda funny; you have to find your place after your wife's done everything during the season," said Winston, who has two children. "You have to kinda find your way back into your life without taking over. My instincts are, 'Why don't we do it like this or do it like that?' And the answer I get back is, 'Because we don't.'"
Said Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen: "There's always such whiplash after the season when I'm around the house a lot. My wife and I get irritated with each other. It takes a good three or four weeks. You kind of push through it. Bless her heart, my wife rocks. I'm used to the structure of a football season and, basically, I get in her way a lot."
Witten has experienced the same type of readjustment. The 11-year veteran lives two distinct lives: "Offseason and obviously what you do in-season."
"It's a little bit of culture shock," he said. "You're used to doing something the same way, and you're so locked in on doing that and in such a routine of football that, when that stops, you're thrown into the real world a little bit.
"No question, it takes time to readjust and kind of getting back to pulling everything in."
The biggest benefit of a season ending for many players is the chance to see their kids more. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is home when his son wakes up and is able to spend a few hours with him before working out. Winston has time to drop his daughter off at school and come home to play with his son. Wagner can see his daughter and spend more time with his nephews, who are starting to play football.
Right after the season, Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said, he is in high demand.
"It can start off being difficult because you haven't seen them a lot, so you're getting pulled in each direction," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "You've got to go see this family member, that family member. So at first, it's tough, but it starts to calm down as you get into the offseason."
Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said after the Super Bowl he planned to visit family in Connecticut, then find a beach and "enjoy some me time."
And for those without a wife and kids, such as Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, family time after the season means a two-week vacation with his brothers.
"It was nice to be able to get away and clear the mind and relax, taking advantage of an unfortunate situation," he said, referring to the Texans' 2-14 record this season.
Taking a break
The Watt you watch on Sundays -- the guy who can't stop moving on defense, who's quick off the snap and even quicker to a quarterback -- is the same guy when the football season ends. He can't stop going.
"One of the most difficult things for me to do once the season is over is to actually force myself to take time off to let my body recover," said Watt, the 2012 defensive player of the year. "I'm one of those guys who ... I love working and, if I'm not working, I feel like I'm kind of a bum, so I have to force myself to give myself two or three weeks after the season to let my body fully recover.
"Ideally I would like a month, but I can only usually give myself two weeks."
Some players, Wagner among them, take a week. Most players, including Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, might take two. After 17 weeks of hitting, slamming and pummeling each other -- a car wreck on every play, as Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin put it -- players' bodies are broken down. It's rare for an NFL player to finish the season without being banged up. The first two weeks after the season usually confuse the body. It's treating those 14 days like a bye week, Roethlisberger said. Small injuries start to heal. But the body is preparing itself to be hit again.
Lenon said the first two weeks after a season feel worse than the last two weeks of the season.
"Things hurt that I didn't realize were bothering me because I was just so focused on going," he said.
And after three weeks?
"When your body gets a space like this right now," Winston said, "it's wondering what the hell is going on."
Former quarterback Warren Moon played in the CFL and NFL for 22 seasons. He usually had a week or two off after the season, depending on how far his teams -- the Houston Oilers, Minnesota, Seattle and Kansas City -- went in the playoffs before the Pro Bowl. Then he'd relax for two weeks before starting his offseason workouts.
"Then I'd slowly get back into it," said Moon, who would concentrate on different areas of his body with each workout. "My body would feel pretty good. Working out made my body feel good. It kept the blood flowing, stretched the muscles and got the lactic acid out of the body. That would make me play a lot better. I took a lot of steam showers or steam baths to make myself sweat and get those impurities out of my body."
Jumping back in
If there's one thing NFL players don't do much of during the season, it's relax. Rarely do they have an opportunity from July to December to kick back and rest. And that's all they want to do once their lockers are cleaned out. "You want to sit on your couch and not do anything," Winston said. "It's hard because you don't want to start working out."
But it might end up being the worst thing a player can do. As a trainer, Bartholomew said a couple of weeks of inactivity can actually help the body. But if a player starts getting lazy, it could spell trouble. Bartholomew said football players lose their "fitness qualities" three times as quickly as they gain them. First goes their cardio, then power; within six weeks a drop in muscle mass can be noticed.
After months of moving every which way -- while also soaking in hot tubs and cold tubs, getting stretched by trainers and rubbed down by masseuses -- the body becomes used to it. Going a week or two without activity will lead to stiff backs and tight muscles.
"You definitely have time, a few days here or there, to relax, decompress, but I try to stay active by working out a little bit, getting back going," Witten said. "I don't think you can just have two weeks of nothing. You don't just jump back into it by taking a few days off just resting up and getting back.
"Just lighter workouts, probably less straining and more cardio and get a good sweat in."
Seahawks defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said his body clock actually helps him stay in shape in the offseason. He is trained to wake up between 6 and 7 a.m., and he can't just lie in bed. McDonald goes for walks or rides a bike, "just to let my muscles stretch out."
The workout of choice is different for everyone.
Wagner plays basketball every day; Peterson is an avid offseason golfer; and Seahawks tackle Russell Okung does mixed martial arts and yoga. Cliff Branch, who played for the Raiders from 1972 to 1985, stayed in shape by running and playing tennis. In his first three offseasons, Branch ran competitively for the International Track Association. Branch's tennis game, inspired by the great Arthur Ashe, was put on display, usually against Raiders teammate George Atkinson. When the team reported for training camp, Branch said he and Atkinson were in great shape because of their offseason matches.
"There were no OTAs like today," Branch said, referring to organized team activities. "We were basically six months on, six months off, with two months of training camp. The modern football player, we laugh. We wish we had walk-throughs and practices in shorts and practices with no pads."
The country club sports are still in vogue today.
Winston tries to get in 18 holes of golf as often as possible, staying loose on the course. He also swims to keep up his cardio. A few years after entering the league, when teams still had a 13-week offseason, Winston went more than two months without doing any sort of exercise. Once training camp opened, it didn't take long for him to realize that wasn't a good idea.
"I couldn't run from here to there without passing out," he said. "I was so embarrassed. I was like, 'I'm never doing that again.' It took awhile to really get back into shape. There was no harm in it. I think I had a really good year.
"You realize you're not a spring chicken. You can't just go on a basketball court and run for days. That's a tough realization."
Which makes recovery a delicate balance.
Although players want to kick back and relax, they also know they need to stay in shape. They don't want to give teams a reason to replace them.
"You want to get out of football mode, but you can't get too far out of it," Knighton said. "You're conscious of the fact that you have to do things to stay active. Maybe instead of taking a cab where I'm going, I'll decide to walk. Little things like that keep you in shape without making you feel like you're working at it nonstop."
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount, Texans reporter Tania Ganguli, Cowboys reporter Todd Archer, Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez, Jets reporter Rich Cimini, Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN.com Insider Mike Sando contributed to this report.