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Bills players turn to trainers to keep bodies, minds right amid pandemic

Brandon Jordan finished his phone call with Ed Oliver, packed his belongings and bid his parents adieu, setting out on the five-hour drive from his hometown of New Orleans back to Houston.

The offensive and defensive line coach plans to meet this week with a handful of his clients, including Oliver, the Buffalo Bills’ second-year starting defensive tackle, to begin to reimagine personally tailored offseason training regimens disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now, if everything was going good, I was preparing to have a major NFL camp in Atlanta next week,” Jordan said. “There were going to be about 40 NFL guys and some guys that are up for the draft. We were going to have a big week, just getting guys ready for (offseason programs), because they’d have them that following week. So right now it’s real slow for me.”

It’s unclear when society, let alone the sports world, will return to normal, with most states in some form of lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus. The upheaval and uncertainty has personal trainers and coaches like Jordan scrambling to figure out how to best meet the needs of elite athletes, while teams are relying on their players to remain healthy and in shape, ready to report for duty on an as yet unspecified date.

The NFL maintains its plan to start the season on time, at least for now, but has closed team practice facilities, canceled draft festivities in Las Vegas and indefinitely delayed the start of offseason programs amid the pandemic. Teams with new head coaches would have been able to meet last week. All others, including the Bills, could have started April 20.

The NFL and NFL Players Association are discussing possible rules that would allow teams to conduct classroom instruction and workouts on a virtual basis until it’s safe to reopen team facilities, according to an NFLPA memo sent to players last week. Until that time, players cannot participate in club-supervised workouts, practices, meetings or film or playbook study with any coach, either in person or virtually.

“They’ve got to be smart,” Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said. “They’ve got to be safe if they're around somebody else, a trainer, or if they are with a teammate or even a guy who plays in the league. ...

"Having the personal trainers is important, but at the same time we're encouraging all of our guys – health – your personal health is first and foremost important at this time.”

Jordan said he has friends battling Covid-19, but none were serious cases and his family in hard-hit New Orleans remained healthy.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide stay at home order on March 22.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has asked residents to stay at home through April except for essential needs, but he stopped short of banning all nonessential activity.

“Guys have been blowing my phone up to work,” said Jordan, who also works with Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes. "I’ve been trying to stay safe, trying to practice a little bit of social distancing. I’ll probably get back to work next week with just some one-on-one sessions. Not going to do too much group work. I’m just going to have guys come one at a time to get some work in, just so those guys can stay up to par, so when everything gets back to normal, they can still be on top of their game.”

Staying as fit as possible

Once Jordan gets situated in Houston, he’ll share a field with fellow trainer Rischad Whitfield, a renowned coach who goes by the “Footwork King” on social media.

Whitfield has trained NFL stars including Odell Beckham Jr., DeAndre Hopkins, Emmanuel Sanders, Le’Veon Bell, Richard Sherman, Joe Haden, Darius Slay and Xavien Howard, and has worked with Oliver since the Bills’ 2019 first-round draft pick was in high school.

“These guys can’t do anything right now because the facilities are closed,” Whitfield said, speaking about NFL players in general. “Even my college guys can’t go to their colleges to work out, so it’s been tough.”

Bills offensive lineman Jon Feliciano said he rushed to the grocery store to stock up when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a pending stay at home order earlier this month.

Feliciano, who had rotator cuff surgery this offseason, said he’s been FaceTiming with trainers in Buffalo while rehabbing at home, and that many of his Bills teammates are similarly hamstrung by the pandemic.

“Some of them are taking it harder than others,” Feliciano said, “but the group of guys I usually talk to, they’re chilling. They’re just staying at home, enjoying time with their families and trying to stay as fit as possible for whenever we get to come back.”

[Related: Bills' Jon Feliciano says competitive nature of esports 'the same' as in NFL]

In the interim, some players are looking for an edge.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen has quarantined in Southern California with Jets quarterback Sam Darnold, Redskins quarterback Kyle Allen and their personal trainer, Jordan Palmer.

Josh Allen has concentrated on his deep ball, keeping his shoulder level and communicating with teammates, Palmer said, but acknowledged their training has been hampered since California Gov. Gavin Newsom locked down the state March 19.

Palmer said his quarterbacks recently went to a Little League field near his home where little kids were playing soccer at the other side of the field. "I'm out there with three franchise quarterbacks, it's kind of insane," Palmer said on a recent MMQB podcast.

“Usually we’re throwing twice a week and building to four days a week as guys build to OTAs,” Palmer said. “I said, 'Let’s go back down to two.' If we’re doing this indefinitely, I don’t want anyone to start peaking and getting their arm in great shape. Let’s just throw enough to work on specific things, but arm conditioning is not one of them. Arm care is. Doing a lot of stuff before and after we throw. Working on the foundational things that make up their throwing motion.”

[Jim Kubiak: How lack of offseason program could impact Josh Allen's development]

In Texas, Whitfield said he’s working one on one with a handful of top draft prospects and pros, citing recent training sessions with Bills linebacker Corey Thompson, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris, Bears running back David Montgomery and Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson.

Whitfield said players who don’t live nearby often fly into town and rent Airbnbs, and that he tries to maintain 6 feet of social distance during workouts, which can be a challenge.

“But I’m able to get it done,” Whitfield said. “Sometimes it might be 3 feet away. But it’s all good. We’ve been doing a lot of field work. I haven’t been in the gym. I’ve been on the field working with them, so we really haven’t been touching anything really. Catch a few tennis balls every now and then. Catch some footballs. But other than that, everything is just kind of movement. That’s my main focal point.

“What’s hard is a lot of the recovery places are closed as well. At my facility, I have a cryo-recovery place right there, I have an acupuncture guy right there, I have a chiropractor there and I have a physical therapist, so everybody is really close by. Not even five minutes. But they’re not open. We kind of figured they wouldn’t be ‘essential.’ ”

Some athletes, he said, set up one-on-one appointments with chiropractors and acupuncturists.

But most take matters into their own hands, relying on running socks and leg sleeves for compression, hypervolt massage guns, lacrosse balls and foam rollers to knead sore muscles. It can get pretty basic.

“Man, go to the store and get five or six bags of ice, load y’all bathtub with the ice and put water in there. There’s your ice tub right there,” Whitfield said, laughing. “When it comes to training, recovery is key.”

'Get your mind right'

Oliver, like Feliciano, has been rehabbing at home and receiving online feedback from the Bills’ training staff, which is allowed for players coming off injury.

The defensive tackle, who had five sacks as a rookie after being selected out of Houston with the ninth overall pick in last year's draft, has recovered from core muscle surgery in January, Whitfield said, but won’t begin to really ramp up on-field work until next month.

“Ed’s been having fun riding his horses and all that,” Whitfield said. “I don’t want to rush Ed back because he’s coming off the core injury. But he’s 110%. He’s just lifting weights and stuff like that. I don’t really want to start moving him around until toward the end of May.”

Jordan said that in the interim, he’ll try to focus on how Oliver can improve his pass rush with better technique.

“I wanted to work hands with him a little bit this offseason,” Jordan said, “but I’m going to see how it goes. Just to keep him fresh, man. Because ‘Year 2’ is major. He knows the speed of the game now. He already adjusted to the speed of the game. You could see it at the end of the season when he started being more productive. Now we’ve just got to help him just build on the season. And him not being with his coaches, it’s going to be tough, because OTAs always help young players. But we’ll try the best ways possible to get that rust off him so he can go full speed when it’s time to go.”

For many players, the only coaching they’re able to receive is online.

Quincy Avery, who trains quarterbacks in Atlanta, said he and Deshaun Watson struggled to find an adequate place to work out with local gyms and high school and college fields closed, leading the Texans’ quarterback to abandon their offseason plans and return to Houston.

But online instruction leaves much to be desired.

“It’s really tough to work with those guys in terms of that,” Avery said, “because when you’re playing at that level, they kind of want the hands-on instruction of you being there, and I completely understand it. It’s been difficult.”

Tim Jenkins, who trains athletes in Colorado, said his facility cleared out, leaving virtual instruction the only tool at his disposal. Jenkins cited Panthers quarterback P.J. Walker, a client who signed with Carolina in late March after turning heads in the XFL.

“He was scheduled to come out for a month and a half and he always stays at the house and trains, and obviously he can’t do that,” Jenkins said. “That’s been the hardest thing, especially with P.J. He’s got a new playbook and he wants to work on it in a controlled environment.

“These guys all go throw on their own, but a lot of these high-level guys want it in a controlled environment where they can get constant feedback.”

Drew Brees joined an online class hosted by Todd Durkin, his personal trainer in San Diego, last week, working out virtually alongside “grandmas, grandpas, moms and dads,” Durkin said.

Durkin said he has encouraged his pro athletes to wear a heart-rate monitor and to keep track of their calories and other biometric data. He also sends regular motivational videos, noting that physical activity leads to improved mental health and reduced stress.

“Train right now to get your mind right,” Durkin said. “I don’t care if it’s 20 minutes a day. Just train. I’m talking to NFL athletes like I’m talking to anyone. Move your body daily. You must do something every day, because a lot of people, a lot of guys are just right now pounding food, sitting at home, playing their Xbox or whatever. It can’t happen. Now’s not a time to get fat and do nothing. Now’s the time to actually amp it up.”

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