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Could Decreased Physicality in the NFL Be Increasing Injuries?

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In recent years, we’ve seen the National Football League change its rules, especially when it comes to protecting quarterbacks and receivers from vicious hits. With the NFL in the crosshairs over concussions and the long-term health effects of playing in the league, some of these changes—like rules about “leading with the head” or protecting “defenseless” players—were probably inevitable. But other rules changes concerning jamming receivers, calling defensive pass interference, and tackling quarterbacks have taken football away from its more “physical” roots and put an increased emphasis on speed, which may have inadvertently increased players’ risk of injury.

The NFL Is a Passing League

Look back at the history of the NFL and you’ll see that running the football has been a longstanding emphasis for offenses. In fact, the original rules of the sport outlawed forward passes, and only in 1906 (37 years after the first intercollegiate game) was it made legal. It wasn’t until 1936 that Green Bay’s Arnie Herber became the NFL’s first 1000-yard passer.

Looking more recently, in both the 2003 and 2004 seasons, there were eighteen 1000-yard rushers in the league. In 2013 and 2014, there were only thirteen such players. Conversely, there were two quarterbacks with 4,000 passing yards in the 2003 season, yet in 2014, there were eleven.

Unless you’re a football purist who longs for the days of grinding out yards on the ground, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this shift in how offenses move the ball, but there can be no debating that the landscape in the league has changed. (For more on the shift from run to pass in the NFL, see this terrific article by Kevin Seifert.)

Bigger, Faster, Stronger

It’s no secret that athletes across all sports are bigger, faster, and stronger than ever before. With scientifically honed training programs, scouts that scour the world for prototypical physical specimens, and supplements (both legal and illegal) that weren’t previously available, it’s no surprise, either. But there’s more to it than just a natural progression of finding the best of the best of the best.

More and more, football has become a game predicated on “explosive” plays. On offense, we can define a big play as a run >10 yards or a pass >25 yards. Defensively, an easy measure would be forced turnovers (INT + FF). Last year’s Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, ranked 2nd in the league in percentage of big plays on offense and 1st on defense. Before their loss at the Bills, the Green Bay Packers were looking like the class of the NFL, and led the league in turnover differential. Not only do explosive plays make a big impact in the context of the game, but they also energize their teams and fans.

Speed especially has a big role in creating these types of plays. Being able to cover more ground in less time makes it easier to separate from a defender or close in on a pass. The problem is that you get 200+ lbs men hurtling at each other at full speed, creating impacts that are bound to lead to injury. For example, an average DB in the NFL can tackle with 1600 pounds of force.

Decreased Practice Time

The latest collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the league and the players reduced the total amount of contact practice time players had during the week and in the offseason. In theory, this was done with the purpose of reducing wear and tear on players’ bodies. Nagging injuries can crop up during practice, and sometimes compensating for a relatively minor injury can expose a player to a more serious injury.

However, decreased practice time (as well as Thursday games) have also produced a lot more sloppy play. This is no surprise, given the mantra that practice makes perfect. This sloppy play can manifest itself in players being out of position or using poor technique. Both of these can potentially open someone up for injury, especially if they’re short on preparation and not ready for where the next hit is coming from.

Adjusting to the Rules

Particularly with an emphasis on avoiding blows to the head, tacklers are being encouraged to aim low. However, the NFL probably had chest-high tackles in mind, but defenders instead are increasingly aiming at the legs and knees. The explanation is basic physics. If you want to knock over something, you want to hit it as far away from its center of gravity as possible. Aiming high and aiming low achieve just that. Since the rules now penalize attempts at going high, we’re seeing more and more low tackles, which in turn lead to season-ending ACL injuries.

Two Suggestions

#1: Adapt the Game

The rules of the game have changed in arbitrary ways over the years, and it may be time to make corrections for some of them. While 10 yards for a first down has been a fundamental tenet of football, perhaps it’s time to look at 15 yards as an option. Doing so would space players out a bit more, giving them more time to react to each other. While it might seem that this would force offenses to put even more emphasis on passing, the increased spacing should also translate into wider running lanes, particularly if a back can get into the secondary.

Another area the rules could change is kickoffs. Though the league recently moved the kickoff forward by 5 yards in an attempt to increase touchbacks, teams are also trying to take advantage by kicking high and forcing returners to run back kicks while pinned deep in their own territory. The league should either decide that it wants to get rid of the kickoff entirely, or else it should move the spot *back* by 10 yards (5 yards from the original spot) in order to force lower kicks (and a longer run for the coverage team) that give returners a chance to read and react (or protect themselves).

A third consideration would be to allow for more physicality from defensive backs, specifically prior to the pass. This could work in tandem with the 15 yard first down (thereby putting emphasis back on the running game). There are simply too many free releases, which forces defenders to gamble, either by trying for an interception or delivering a big hit. More press coverage would put the emphasis back on accuracy from quarterbacks and hit-and-wrap tackling from defenders.

#2 Improve On-Field Safety

While the NFL has mandated each team have a neurological specialist on the sideline to evaluate for traumatic brain injuries, the truth is that system is deeply flawed, as the specialists only offer input and have little to no say about whether a player is actually cleared to play. And while the league can keep increasing the number of doctors each team has to carry on staff, the real focus needs to be on prevention.

With speed at such a premium in the league, it’s not surprising that players will often eschew hefty padding in favor of something lighter and less restrictive. It may be time to increase the amount of baseline padding each player has to wear. It might make the on-field product look a little more clunky, but losing a half step across the board may also help keep players safe.

Lastly, let’s see some more innovation, particularly in the mechanics and engineering of helmets. Teams are interested in helmets that help prevent concussions, and manufacturers should start taking cues from the automotive industry’s crash testing. Crumple zones are a big part of why people can often walk away from car accidents, and it seems the technology is out there for helmets to use, except manufacturers are dismissing it. It’s time for everyone in football to wake up and innovate new ways to keep players safe.

Football is a game, and one that many Americans enjoy watching. But the risks of the game are becoming too great. Players shouldn’t have to choose between playing football and a decent quality of life after they leave the game. And as paradoxical as it sounds, a return to good ol’ fashioned, smash-mouth football may be just the answer we needed.

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