TAMPA, Fla. -- What does Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who has spent 44 years coaching football, rely on when preparing to take his team to London, with the trip coming midway through a five-game road stand spanning over 20,000 miles, with games and practices in four different time zones?
"Sports science all the way,” said Arians, when asked what he listens to when preparing his players for the long journey. “My gut stinks. It doesn’t know anything.”
Arians made the trip two years ago when he was with the Arizona Cardinals. That time, he brought his team over to London on Monday and practiced there all week, but that was because it was a 13-hour flight from Phoenix and there was an eight-hour time difference. The Cardinals wound up losing 33-0, with quarterback Carson Palmer being knocked out of the game.
“Don’t let your quarterback break his arm,” Arians quipped of the Bucs' plan, adding, “We’re doing things totally different now. … We’re doing a lot of things differently than some teams have done.”
Added quarterback Jameis Winston: “This is the most thought into travel I’ve ever experienced in the league. So it’s pretty big.”
When Arians was hired this offseason, he created an entire sports science department, something new to the Buccaneers. The group has used everything from GPS tracking to measure individual exertion levels, to hydration and sleep monitoring. That feedback has became a vital component in carving out and executing a plan for London and assessing how each player’s body has held up during this five-game road stretch.
"[Having] the foresight to bring a team together like this and also to listen and try to utilize that knowledge the best he can -- it would be easy [for him] to kinda say, 'Well, I've always done it this way' -- it just shows the character of the man," said Dave Hamilton, the Bucs’ director of sports science who was actually born in London.
This time, the Bucs aren’t leaving until Thursday evening, meaning they’ll arrive in London Friday afternoon, roughly 48 hours prior to kickoff. But the acclimation period has already begun.
“We know that when you cross the time zones, typically for every hour you’re going [west to east], you need a day to recover. We’re talking about five hours, therefore it’s about five days. So we’re trying to do everything we can to do what we call a ‘phase shift,’" Hamilton said.
As soon as the Bucs left New Orleans Sunday night, players and coaches were directed to begin going to sleep a half hour early each night. Those needing some extra help were advised to start taking melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. That’s because they’ll be expected to get a full night’s rest prior to Friday’s practice.
“I think [Tuesday] was 9:30 p.m. and then [Wednesday] is gonna be 9. And then hopefully [Thursday] I’ll be able to fall asleep at 8:30,” said wide receiver Justin Watson, although he hadn’t started taking the melatonin yet.
“I’ll probably take the melatonin. I’m a light sleeper,” Watson said.
Outside linebacker Shaq Barrett has some at home but doesn’t think he’ll take it. He’s been falling asleep already anywhere from 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
“I haven’t had any problems falling asleep recently. It’d be easy for me to fall asleep right now because I’m always tired from work or having a busy day at home,” Barrett said.
“I didn’t follow protocol because I watched the [ALDS] game [4 between the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros] and I know [tight end] O.J. [Howard] didn’t because he was at the game,” Arians said, referring to Howard’s bare-handed grab of a foul ball in the eighth inning that was caught by TV cameras and soon went viral.
Players have also been given special blue-light glasses to protect them from the blue light emanated from their electronic devices, which drops melatonin in the body and interferes with sleep.
“When you watch TV or iPads or even on your phones, the blue light that’s emitted from that actually causes like a 30 or 40% drop in melatonin. So if we try and supplement with melatonin, plus we get the blue light glasses on, we’re trying to get them to feel sleepier earlier so they’ll wake up earlier. We’re trying to get that transition to the UK time zone,” Hamilton said.
“It seems so mundane or silly having to put on these blue light glasses but your body has a natural clock and the minute you throw off that clock, there are implications to how it performs. So we want to try and control as much of that."
“We’ve been wearing them all week like when we go home, just to start trying to turn it down before bed,” Watson said.
For the flight itself, players will get compression socks and a device called a “Firefly,” which is a neuromuscular stimulator that is placed on the side of the knee and increases blood flow from the peroneal nerve.
“When you sit down on the plane, you occlude at the hip and the knee, so you get restricted blood flow typically, and that’s what creates all the blood-pooling, so by having the compression socks and the Firefly, what we’re basically doing is creating like an active ‘calf pump’ so the blood is constantly getting support,” Hamilton explained.
“Those feel pretty good,” said Barber, who also uses the Firefly at home. “It feels like stim (electrical muscle stimulation) but not as zappy. It just feels like a pulse. I do [notice a difference]."
The goal is to have players’ bodies feel like they’ve been moving around the entire flight and so there’s no swelling. The Bucs used these tools to speed up their recovery after their Week 1 game against the San Francisco 49ers at home before heading on the road to face the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 on Thursday night.
Nickelback M.J. Stewart isn’t a fan of the socks, though.
“They make my skin itch,” Stewart said. “I just have sensitive skin.”
Nor is he a fan of flying over eight hours.
“I’ll probably watch a movie or two the first half [of the flight], then probably knock out,” said Stewart, who is leaning toward downloading “It 2.”
"I got a couple movies on my phone, 'Superbad,' I got the Harry Potter collection. They'll probably have some good movies on the plane. I don't have a problem falling asleep on a plane. I sleep like a baby anytime I want," wide receiver Mike Evans said.
One of the first things they’ll do when they get to London is measure players’ hydration through urine testing. If a player is dehydrated, it will require a full 24 hours to rehydrate.
They’ll also practice -- not nap -- Friday. They’ll take the field at 3:25 p.m. in London, which would be 10:25 a.m. in Tampa, almost the exact time as their usual Friday practice and close enough to their 2:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) kickoff. Getting sunlight as soon as they get off their flight will help their bodies adjust.
“It’s gonna be different -- something that we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into,” Barrett said with a chuckle. “But we’ve gotta make it good if we want to win on Sunday. So we ain’t got no choice but to get out there and make it good.”
After Friday's practice, they'll have meetings that day and Saturday, but also a small window for sightseeing on Saturday. Winston believes these experiences help the team bond.
“I enjoy traveling, just because I like being on the plane and being with the guys for an extended period of time," Winston said. "You actually get a chance to see them and talk to them."