When the Eagles kick off on Sunday in Tampa against the Buccaneers, the temperature at Raymond James Stadium is expected to be in the low 90s with humidity touching 70 percent. In other words, it's going to feel like an oven, turned up high, relentless. As much as Tampa Bay will be a test on the field, battling the furnace-like conditions will also challenge the players' conditioning, preparation, and mental discipline.
What are the Eagles doing about it? They certainly aren't waiting until Sunday to find out.
"The hydration issue, because it's going to be low 90s, I believe, on Sunday and really the whole week down there," head coach Doug Pederson said. "For me it started on Monday, when the players were in here to continue to hydrate. Don't let this weather pattern up here fool us where it's cooler, it's rainy, because it's not going to be that way. It's going to be hot. It's going to be humid. After a quick game, we have to get up and get ready to play Sunday (first 1 p.m. start of the season), which we haven't had for quite some time. But the message started actually on Monday when the players were here for a workout."
Hydrating isn't something new for the Eagles. They've been into the world of Sports Science for years now and they constantly conduct hydration tests on the players. Digital billboards around the NovaCare Complex tout the benefits of proper hydration and the impact it can have for a player on the field. It's not just about cramping – more on that later – but it's also about mental acuity and the power to recover and perform at a superior level.
Players take the hydration issue seriously. They are diligent about drinking water, Gatorade, cherry juice, and taking IVs to boost their hydration levels. The commitment is daily, whether the upcoming game is played in the searing heat the Eagles faced last Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field against Atlanta or on the road at Tampa Bay or even a late-season, cold-weather game.
Day-to-day hydration is important.
"We're getting good prep here. It was freaking humid out there," linebacker Jordan Hicks said on Wednesday after practice on a hot, humid, and sticky day in Philadelphia. Thursday, though the temperatures cooled. "It's a matter of just locking in. Temperature, heat, if you're not mentally there, if you're not mentally strong and pushing through it, it can fatigue you. We've got to be better. We've got to stay locked in on our communication, stay locked in on the little details. We'll be all right.
"I check my weight after practice every day to see that I'm where I need to be. If I'm not, I will rehydrate. It's a big emphasis and it's been a big emphasis every week. Doug talks to us about it all the time."
Hicks played his college football at the University of Texas, an area of the country as steamy as any. He hasn't cramped since high school and plans to keep it that way.
"The worst cramp is like a lower back, where you can't breathe. A calf, OK. It sucks, but it's your calf," Hicks said. "Something that is altering the way you breathe, that's the worst. It's harsh, man. It's harsh."
Offensive guard Brandon Brooks played for four seasons with the Houston Texans, which made for some swampy Sundays. He doesn't take any chances: A pregame IV is almost a ritual with Brooks, who had one on Thursday before the Atlanta game and had no problems in the high heat.
"Any time it's hot, I can't afford to be out there and not be hydrated," he said. "You get tired if you aren't hydrated. I don't want to take that chance. Throughout the week, I'm hydrating, putting extra in. You don't want to lose too many fluids. When I feel like I don't want to drink, that's when I drink again."
Guard Chance Warmack is known as the locker room's leader in sweating. He is a sweat machine, routinely soaking his clothing on a walk down the hallway (an exaggeration, but not by much). Warmack said he loses between eight and nine pounds of water weight during a practice, so he's careful to keep pounding the fluids.
"It's constant with me. Not just water. I need electrolytes, too. Even if it's a little bit cooler, I have to hydrate," Warmack said. "At this time of the year, I would be in trouble if I didn't take it seriously."
The idea of hydration isn't new, and it's not taken lightly. On one of the digital billboards, the message is loud and clear: "Humans are about 70 percent water weight and muscles are 75 percent water when well hydrated." The message goes on to say that proper hydration improves "movement patterns, mental focus, reaction time, and decision-making." It also reduces fatigue.
And a player, if he prepares properly, won't go down during a game clutching his calf or his hamstring as he feels the cramping start to build.
"It's pretty similar to last week, to be honest with you. Last week was extremely hot," tight end Zach Ertz said. "IV before the game. IV during the week, just trying to do everything I can to load up the body with as many fluids as I can. In terms of, 'Does it change my mindset?' No. Every week I try to stay as hydrated as possible. I never want to be a guy who comes out in the fourth quarter in a really critical situation because I'm dehydrated or cramping. I put a lot of onus on myself to get ready.
"I haven't cramped since high school. The feeling is terrible. It feels like your whole body has locked up and you don't have control of it. It's very painful. It feels like you're getting stabbed with a knife in your muscle. I want to avoid that. There are a lot of studies that show you perform better when you hydrate, so that is one of the important parts of my preparation each week."