At first glance, it almost seems ridiculous to think in a day and age where football players are bigger and faster than ever and showing no signs of letting up that the game could be made safer. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants us to believe the league has made great strides into improving the safety of the game and that the league and individual owners really desire a safer game.
Goodell has made public league wide concussions decreased this year and it has to do with the game being safer. His idea of a safer game was to move touch backs from the 20 to the 25 yard line so there would be fewer kick returns. He even would have us believe there was a drop off from an average of 8.6 to 7.6 concussions per team this past season, figures that are down right laughable in an age where 320 pound linemen smash heads to tackle a 235 pound running back who is leaning forward head first. When I think back to when the first Super Bowl was played, it was not that uncommon for offensive linemen to weigh about what running backs weigh today. At the average rate of growth of almost two pounds a year for linemen, by Super Bowl 100 we will be watching 440 pound behemoths opening holes or trying to tackle 300-plus pound running backs.
This brings into question how will these players fit on a football field? They won’t. In fact, they already don’t. It is for this reason the game cannot be made safer in its present form. Gayle Sayers used to tell his lineman all he needed was an 18-inch gap and he’d be on his way to a touchdown. He’d be lucky to find a six inch gap if he were playing today.
With the grotesquely increase in the size of players, we have also seen a limitation as to what can be done offensively. Teams rely more on short dink and dunk passes because there is little room to run the ball. Gone is the famed Packer sweep. Rare is a reverse run and forget about the good old double reverse. Teams can’t even run a traditional off tackle play anymore because along with the increased size of players has come an increase in the width of the field the offensive line takes up.
By the time a runner gets to the tackle gap, he finds a mass of humanity instead of a hole he can run through. Most running backs are now nothing much more than human battering rams instructed to run through people rather than juke and fake their way around them.
We now see teams employing the spread offense which relies on a single back and numerous receivers instead of the older two back sets that made stars of OJ Simpson, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, and Eric Dickersen. The shotgun is now the norm and a quarterback has a couple of options when he receives a snap: read the defensive end and either hand it off to the back; make a quick pass to a receiver who is five yards across the line; or keep the ball and run (not advised in the NFL).
The spread has also resulted in a more varied passing game, which is designed to exploit match up advantages. It can be a thing of beauty to watch a Tom Brady or Matt Ryan pick apart a defense, however, receivers take a huge beating, just ask Rob Gronkowski.
To think over the course of six months the average team only suffers a little more than one concussion per month is a joke. Players go to great lengths not to report them because they know falling into the concussion protocol can be a nightmare primarily because it takes the decision making away from the team and player and places it in the hands of a third party, one who has the player’s health at heart. Goodell claims self-reporting has increased, which may be true, but it is impossible to know if non-reporting has increased as well. Coaches and players expect team members to suck it up and play through all kinds of pain, including a ringing head. If you want to remain in the NFL, you do not get labeled as soft or injury prone.
When you add to this recipe team doctors work for the owners and not the players and often times players are not just discouraged, but also made an example of for seeking out their own second opinion, something they are entitled to according to the collective bargaining agreement.
Still, the game can be made safer, but doing so means making real changes, something the NFL tends to resist.
The Playing Field: If a single person is placed inside a phone booth (Okay, younger readers have no idea what one is), he is not likely to get injured. However, stuff that booth beyond a single person and you increase the injury rate as you increase the people inside it. This is what has happened with the field of play.
The best solution then is to increase the size of the field since coaches do not want smaller or slower players. I would keep the football field at its current 100 yard length and keep the end zones at ten yards, but I would increase the width of the field from just over 52 yards to 66 yards. The added width will now require players to do what they have been asked to do with greater infrequency and that is defend more area.
Now there are fewer logjams to run through, fewer players arriving at the point of contact, and greater gaps to expose by strong-armed quarterbacks. Just think, along with the excitement of the present day passing game, we might also see a return to teams running a Packer sweep and many of the other running plays that have gone by the wayside.
There becomes actual holes for a quarterback to run through when receivers are not open rather than remaining in a crowded pocket on a packed field like they are forced to now. Receivers might not be taking their lives into their own hands running short crossing routes where line backers, safeties, and their assigned defensive back await to throttle them. A kick returner will actually have larger gaps to run through and not have to wonder why the hell they decided to run into a charging brick wall of bodies at full speed.
This, more than anything else, makes football safer. But there is more that can be done.
Real Drug Testing: I might sound like a hypocrite here because I have often said all adult athletes should have control over their bodies and if they want to destroy them on PEDs to play a game, so be it. However, I am speaking strictly from a safety perspective for making football safer. The NFL has to do real drug testing so players do not keep growing at a rate far greater than the average American. Otherwise, a 66-yard wide field will become too small in just a couple of decades.
One reason players take drugs is to help them recover from training so they can train more often, knowing at the same time there is someone younger who wants their job. However, these drugs often come with an anabolic affect that yields a team of players looking more like King Kong in pads than an actual person.
The league has to clamp down on these offenders and penalize more heavily the cheaters if what they are taking is increasing the odds of them having the ability to inflict an injury on another player. If it makes you bigger and faster it also makes you more dangerous. If it doesn’t and it helps you recover from a sprained ankle, then who cares?
Eliminate Youth Tackle Football: No one needs to play tackle football before their junior year in high school. You cannot teach proper tackling form to a six year old because they lack the coordination to play the game while wearing a full set of pads. Flag football is all young players need through middle school. If you do not believe me, ask Drew Brees what he thinks.
By high school, we see a greater importance placed on 7 on 7 passing leagues. Quarterbacks, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers now spend big money playing in these leagues which are now heavily scouted. Keeping freshmen and sophomores in these leagues provides kids the chance to mature, learn the techniques of their positions long before they begin hitting, while allowing them to be part of a school football program and hopefully adjusting to the rigors of being a student athlete. Lineman can spend this time learning to lift properly and put on bulk in a healthy manner while developing the necessary footwork skills and hand-to-hand techniques that go along with their positions before butting heads.
In other words, actually teach kids how to move, think, and react before placing them at risk of head and orthopedic injuries. The game is not just bigger and faster than ever, it is also far more technical which requires more to master before you should begin hitting.
The Sad Reality: The sad reality is the NFL is afraid of changes that create a safer game. They have built their empire on a modern day sport of gladiators that has become far more violent than its original inception. They fear making it safer will ruin the game. The game is more important than the health of players.
This is, I believe, a major reason behind their push to expand the game beyond our borders. Doing so may open new markets, but it also opens up the pool of available people to play the game. Many of these foreign players will turn to the sport for the same reason so many of our present day athletes do: it will provide them with a path out of a challenging life to a better one for them and their families. The NFL knows our culture is changing toward how it views kids playing the game. A sizable pool of foreign born and more desperate players will allow the league to continue enjoying massive profits for decades to come.
For now, enjoy the game as it is. It won’t remain this way, not as long as players grow to look more like massive creatures of mythical proportions. It’s just a matter of time before the current NFL field ends up looking more like a caged WWE fight. The difference is, the WWE is fake and what the NFL is doing is brutally real.
Photos by Claudia Gestro
Top photo: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressing the media February 1, prior to Super Bowl LI