S John Howell missed eight games in 2003 with a hamstring injury but expects to be back at full strength in time for spring practices
With Head Trainer Todd Toriscelli, and Assistant Trainer Pat Jernigan standing at one end of the field and Training Assistant Eric Yochem waiting at the other end, John Howell runs a 110-yard sprint, then another one. The three trainers watch him closely, looking for signs of trouble in Howell's left hamstring. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fourth-year safety isn't quite running full speed, but he's still sweating profusely. Even on January 26, it's warm out behind One Buccaneer Place.
It could be worse. Howell could be trying to dig out from underneath a snowstorm.
Usually, Howell and his family are back in their home state of Nebraska this time of year. The high in Mullen, Nebraska on Monday was 18 degrees, and much of the Midwest is being battered by a storm that's dumping snow, ice and every other kind of frozen precipitation across the country. At 11:30 a.m. ET, about the time Howell was finishing the first of his five workouts for the week, it was exactly one degree Fahrenheit in Mullen.
So, like we said, it could be worse. The same thing could be said for Howell's left hammy, which cost him the second half of the Bucs' 2003 campaign but, thanks to this change in his usual offseason approach, won't be subtracting any time from his 2004 season.
For Howell, that 2004 season has already begun. Though this is the one time of the calendar year that almost every NFL player – those not still involved in the playoffs, that is – uses as an opportunity to rest and wind down, Howell had no desire to take it easy in January. Not after his hamstring forced him to sit around for a good portion of the season.
"I got back here January 12," said Howell. "Normally, we go back to Nebraska for the offseason but this year I'm so anxious to get back, get back in the weight room, get back to rehabbing this hamstring and making sure it's right for this coming season and this spring. I want to get back this spring and be 110%.
"I've been here working out four or five days a week, running, lifting, getting treatment. It's been good."
Howell played in 30 of a possible 32 games his first two seasons in the NFL, missing two games as a rookie in 2001 due to a concussion and an ankle sprain. In 2003, however, he fell victim to the wave of injuries that swept through the Bucs' secondary, pulling his left hamstring in a midseason practice.
After appearing in the first seven games, and at times playing extensively on defense thanks to other players' injuries, Howell sat out the New Orleans game on November 2. He was cleared to play at Carolina the following weekend, but pulled the hamstring again in the second quarter, this time more seriously. Because the Bucs weren't sure if he would recover by the end of the season, Howell was placed on injured reserve. It marked the first time since another hamstring injury cost him his sophomore year at Colorado State that Howell was sidelined for any significant amount of time.
"Todd listed it as a six-to-eight week injury at the time," said Howell. "Hamstrings are difficult because they can feel fine after three or four weeks, then you go out prematurely and end up pulling it again. We had to make room on the roster (for a player that wasn't hurt), and unfortunately that meant not playing the rest of the season."
In college, Howell tried to come back quickly from his hamstring strain twice and ended up re-injuring it both times and eventually taking a redshirt that year. This time he took a more cautious approach, as the team wanted him to, and he's now certain that he'll be fully recovered by the time the Bucs start working out again in the spring. Howell will become a restricted free agent in March, but the majority of free agents in that category return to their original team.
"Absolutely, I'll be ready," said Howell. "I've been running at about 80-90% out here, with relatively no pain, no soreness, anything like that. I feel good, very confident. It's just good to be back, running and getting in shape again. I'm aware that it's a situation that I have to address, but I don't think it's going to be a problem. It's just something that if I stay on top of it I'll be able to control it."
To stay on top of it, Howell reports to One Buccaneer place four or five mornings a week and happily submits to the rehabilitation program outlined by Toriscelli and his department. That usually starts with a 10-minute ride on the stationary bike and a lap around both practice fields to warm up, followed by the 110-yard sprints, which he runs at 70 to 80 percent.
Howell then moves on to 'half-gassers,' or runs back and forth across the width of the field, an exercise that incorporates a few turns into the run to further test the hamstring.
"That's just a good strider and you get that turn in there," said Howell of the half-gassers. "I'll run five or six of those. Then I'll come in and start the isolation on the hamstring."
Isolation work involves exercises he does only on the injured leg in order to specifically address the hamstring. Those include some single-leg treadmill work, leg presses, sled work and the Cybex machine.
"By the time that's over with, the hamstring feels pretty good. I can definitely feel the work that's there, the blood pumping through it."
And, as long as he's at One Buccaneer Place and in the weight room, Howell finishes by getting in a weight-lifting session, working on his arms and abs. A good cool-down stretch caps the workout and he heads home to his wife and two kids.
Howell surely misses the rest of his family in Nebraska, but he doesn't mind the workouts. In fact, he's throwing himself intensely into the program in order to make up for his truncated 2003 season. The forced inactivity inflated his hunger to play in '04 exponentially.
"When you've got to sit on the sidelines and watch your teammates out there playing, or even worse yet, on the road games when you're at home watching it on TV, you feel like an outsider," Howell explained. "You don't even feel like you belong on the team anymore. You don't feel like you're pulling your weight. It's a frustrating feeling."
The Bucs struggled through a surprisingly disappointing title defense season in 2003, finishing 7-9, but they were still in the playoff race until the second-to-last weekend of the season. Those players who were active – and Howell had quite a bit of company on the disabled list – fought admirably to the end, but Howell admits to being, at least in part, anxious for it to end.
"You feel a little bit selfish at times, because you find yourself thinking, 'I can't wait until next season, I can't wait until next season,'" he said. "So, definitely, as soon as the season was over, I was anxious to get started on the next year.
"I did the Christmas thing, the New Year's thing at home, then I got right back out here to work because I couldn't wait for next year. It just makes you hungrier."