Taylor Decker had what he considered the best season of his career in 2022.
The Detroit Lions left tackle was voted a Pro Bowl alternate for the first time in his seven NFL seasons. He did not miss an offensive snap while playing all 17 games. He was a leader on one of the best offensive lines and offenses in the league.
And it almost did not happen because of foot problems.
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Decker told the Free Press in a pair of interviews late in the 2022 season that he nearly decided to undergo surgery last offseason to correct lingering issues with both feet.
Decker suffered a posterior tibial tendon injury in his left foot in the final game of the 2021 season, an injury that left a cyst on a nerve bunch that bothered him all spring. He has played through pain in his right foot for years due to a bone spur that limits his big toe mobility and a genetic condition, bipartite sesamoids, in which his sesamoid bone is split.
“I was strongly considering getting foot surgery and I didn’t want to, just ’cause when I had my shoulder surgery that was such a pain in the ass I don’t want to have to get a surgery if I don’t need to,” Decker said.
Decker, who missed eight games in 2017 with a labrum tear in his shoulder and eight more in 2021 because of a spiral fracture in his finger, spent the early part of last offseason consulting with doctors to manage his discomfort.
He flew to New York to meet with a doctor whose wife was a podiatrist and he was fitted for orthotics. He traveled to Green Bay after summer OTAs to meet with Packers team physician Dr. Robert Anderson, one of the country’s most renowned foot and ankle specialists.
He underwent multiple MRIs and tried several non-surgical remedies that did little to alleviate his pain, but eventually decided against surgery because the months-long rehab process would cut into the 2022 season.
In late spring, while receiving regular cortisone shots, Decker started a 40-day foot care program he found online that he said worked restorative wonders on his feet.
Through trial and error, he began a series of exercises that improved his ankle and big toe mobility — exercises he continued throughout the season — and implemented lifestyle changes that made his foot pain more manageable.
He wears Birkenstocks that mold to his feet or barefoot shoes with flexible soles just about everywhere he goes. He trains mostly barefoot in the offseason. On the football field, Decker wore cleats with an extra-wide toe box for added comfort this season and played with a half-plate in his right shoe to protect his big toe.
He does banded toe-strengthening exercises during his down time at home, and watches TV while sitting on his floor to help improve his posture. And as he explained to the Free Press his work to improve his foot health, he reached in a black backpack he keeps with him at the Lions’ training facility and pulled out a half-dozen everyday exercise contraptions.
“Feet are — I’ve learned over the last year that they’re complicated and they’ve just bothered me forever,” Decker said. “I’ve got high arches and just a lot of scar tissue from probably some plantar facia stuff and some bone spurs and stuff like that, and arthritis. But it’s stuff I do every day. I mean, I got all this stuff in my bag, I literally do this in meetings every day.
“Like, I got my toe spreaders. This is a cork ball to stand on, roll out your feet. Just pick up (this hacky sack) with all your different toes. This is my band. This thing right here (a moveable wood block), you put your foot on it and you pronate it and then you can lock the other side and do it, a heel lock. You just don’t realize how stiff your feet are.”
Decker said he did foot exercises twice daily during the season, sometimes under his desk in the Lions meeting room or while standing during film sessions. This offseason, he’ll add a balance beam routine to his daily regimen.
“I’ve got these, like, two 10-foot, they’re basically pipes,” Decker said. “Just walk on them and balance on them, cause it all starts from the ground up. It’s easy to overlook it until you have an issue, and then it just travels up and affects everything. If your feet hurt as a player, I mean Frank (Ragnow)’s feet hurt and it bothers him every day. So it’s just something that I, trial and error, tried to figure out on my own and found some things that worked for me.”
Ragnow, the Lions’ Pro Bowl center, suffered a turf toe-like injury in the Lions’ season opener; he played through it all season. After missing most of the 2021 season with a foot injury, Ragnow said he might require a second surgery this offseason.
Decker has avoided that fate so far, and he hopes the strides he has made the past eight months will help him maintain good health in the future.
“I would say like this has been my most healthy year I’ve ever had,” he said. “A lot of that is attributed to stuff I’ve just kind of figured out trial-and-error as I’ve gone through my career and things that I specifically need to do. Yeah, it’s just been a lot of trial and error to try and figure things out. I’ve had a lot of foot issues since college and I was able to figure some things out for that to help a lot, and a lot of back issues. Knock on wood, that’s been pretty good.”