On the NFL
8:13 PM PST, February 7, 2013
Strength and conditioning in the NFL is radically different from what it was 28 years ago, when Rusty Jones first started working for the Bills.
Jones, the Bears' retiring director of physical development, is a big reason.
He was the first NFL strength coach to tailor individual workout and nutrition programs for each player, the first to rely on the body mass index system and the first to monitor hydration status with a device called "The Bod Pod."
"He was a pioneer in every facet of it — nutrition, exercise, weightlifting, offseason work," said six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian, who hired Jones in Buffalo. "He was way ahead of his time, worlds ahead, in terms of training methods, nutrition and conserving athletes' energy."
Polian credits Jones for helping the Bills get to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s by conditioning the team's offensive linemen to be able to run the no-huddle offense.
When Bears general manager Phil Emery was a young strength coach at Saginaw Valley State in the mid-'80s, a friend showed him a nutritional program for football players that was being used by the Bills and "some guy named Rusty Jones." It was so much better than anything Emery previously had seen that he started using it immediately for his players.
Later, when Emery was the strength coach at Navy, he pirated Jones' metabolic training programs for position groups.
Jones came to the Bears in 2005 after a rash of muscle pulls prompted then-GM Jerry Angelo and then-coach Lovie Smith to look for different training methods.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher missed the entire preseason and seven games that year with hamstring pulls in both legs and a calf pull. After Jones' arrival, Urlacher never missed another game with a muscle pull until December of last season.
Urlacher's health was part of a larger trend. In the five years before Jones' arrival, the Bears had an average ranking of 31st in the NFL in fewest missed games by starters, according to the Dallas Morning News. In the Jones era, the Bears had an average ranking of ninth.
The trend was reversed in Buffalo. In Jones' last five years there, the Bills had an average ranking of fifth. Since he left, they have an average ranking of 32nd.
Jones attributes many muscle pulls to pelvic balance issues and works to avoid injuries through nutrition, hydration and exercise. All the power in the universe can't help a player if he's in the hot tub on game day, so Jones sometimes prescribed a spectrum of non-traditional exercises. He acknowledges walking a fine line between trying to make players strong enough and healthy enough.
"Strength training was the hub of the program," he said. "But you did realize there were a lot of other spokes to the wheel. You don't want it to overtake all of the other fitness components. It all goes together. You wanted to make sure, even though your players may be strong and big, they still have to run. The name of the game is speed."
Jones' running programs were position-specific based on what players are required to do in games. For instance, defensive backs didn't just run 110-yard dashes. They backpedaled and then broke right or left for 20 yards.
He used spreadsheets and heart rate monitors to gauge maximal oxygen uptake and anaerobic thresholds. Jones marveled at how Urlacher and Lance Briggs could "run forever." He also was impressed at the way Briggs became a better worker as he aged.
"I've told him, 'As you've gotten older, you are going to get weight room guy of the year,' " said Jones, who changes players' workout programs as they age. "Lance Briggs did not rely on his past or his laurels. There are times I told him, 'You have to rest today,' because he was beat up. He came in every day."
Jones also evaluated diets and prescribed specific eating programs for every player.
"He connected the dots of workout, rest and nutrition with how the player needed to perform in season," said Ruben Brown, who played for Jones in Buffalo and Chicago. "He made it all a science.
"He extended my career. He got some unbelievable performances out of me when my body was banged up. He helped me when my body was failing me. He knew how to train me to maximize my skills."
Said former Bears center Olin Kreutz: "Rusty is the original strength coach. He helped get the best out of a lot of players."
He also helped front offices by coming up with an evaluative formula for workout measurables that helps gauge athletic potential. Many teams now use the system, including the Bears, Falcons, Patriots and Colts.
"He was way out in front of the field in terms of analytics and their use," Emery said.
Jones, who has worked with 43 Pro Bowl players, believes his 28 continuous years in the NFL is a record for a strength coach. But the 59-year-old decided it was time to move on, despite the fact the Bears wanted him back.
He plans on retiring to his home on a lake in New Hampshire. That would put Jones closer to his only child, Tyler, a sophomore at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
"I just wanted to be near my son and come back home after almost 30 years away," said Jones, who grew up in Berwick, Maine.
Jones hopes to be remembered as a coach who worked for, listened to and gained the respect of players.
He'll be remembered as much more than that.
"In my mind, Rusty Jones is the most special strength coach there ever was because of his physiological expertise, his passion and the ability to connect with athletes, coaches and staff people alike," Polian said. "I've never come across anyone like him."
Said Emery: "It was a sad moment to hear he was retiring. He used every minute of his 28 years for the betterment of others. That's what sets him apart."
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