Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Of Kickoffs, Running Backs, and Player Safety in the NFL

My goodness... there's certainly a lot of news around player safety in the NFL lately.  From the increased focus on head injuries, to implementing and enforcing various new rules, to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's dropping an iron fist on the New Orleans Saints -- including fining and suspending individual Saints players, coaches, and team executives, past and present (OW!) -- for its bounty system, the league is taking relatively aggressive steps to protect its main asset: the players.  Unfortunately, it has taken a tragedy to focus both the league and fans on the importance of player safety.  Perennial All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau was found dead in his home May 2nd, reportedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Many people are already speculating Seau was a victim of degenerative brain disease brought on by repeated concussions suffered over a 20 year career.  Count me in with that group.

'Bountygate' has accounted for much of the NFL melodrama this off-season.  When the story first broke, the public discussion settled around whether Goodell had gone too far in punishing Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis, Coach Sean Payton, and former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams for administering an incentive system for big hits on opposing players.  Initially, I thought use of the term 'bounty' to describe what the Saints had done was a little over the top.  'Bounty' to me in this context means rewarding a player for disabling an opponent by any means necessary.  If that means chop blocking a defensive lineman on a pass play, so be it.  A defender throwing down a runner already in the grasp, after his forward progress has stopped or once the whistle has blown is allowed the benefit of the doubt.  I don't believe Payton, Williams, and staff encouraged such dirty play and cheap shots.  I know from my own (piddling) experiences in and around organized football that players are taught to be aggressive but 'clean', meaning there are formal and informal rules of engagement on the field to be followed.  Extracurricular activity, e.g.; a punch to a runner's chops while he's at the bottom of a pile, is frowned upon.  Defensive players are not to 'headhunt'.  Above all, there's no hitting of an opponent after the whistle blows or who's stepped out of bounds. 

Football coaches and players customarily laud players who land big hits.  So do fans.  Players are definitely penalized by coaches and their teammates for making errors, both in practice and games.  NFL coaches routinely fine players for errors and penalties the latter has committed during games.  Offering them rewards for big hits seemed consistent and proper to me.

But then I thought how silly it is to have to incentivize a dude already making thousands of dollars, if not millions, for doing what he's supposed to do while playing a cotdamned game.  A $1,000 extra for a pancake block when you're already getting $500,000?  If I have to offer you what is, essentially, chump change on top of big bucks to take a little pride in your work, I don't want you on my team.  I realize this isn't Goodell's rationale for punishing Loomis, Payton, Williams, etc.  But it did cause me to focus on what's important -- the players' safety.

Cynical pundits and idiot fans (or is it idiot pundits and cynical fans?) maintain Goodell's politically-correct micromanagement threatens to ruin the sport of football.  When the league introduced stronger rules aimed at protecting quarterbacks, slobs, scrubs, wannabes and never-weres wailed football was being sissified; emasculated.  Why not just ban tackling altogether, give 'em flags, and make it flag football?  There's also the phony he-man argument: football's a violent game... if you don't want to get injured, don't play.  A similar outburst came after the NFL announced tougher enforcement against helmet-to-helmet shots, swings to players' heads, and spearing.  Admittedly, it's often difficult to police helmet-to-helmet shots.  A defender rushing toward a runner at full speed can't simply readjust his body once in the motion of tackling a target that's also in motion.  Helmet-to-helmet hits are a gray area.  Still, I'd prefer the league err on the side of safety.  I happen to think a professional football player will get the hint about keeping his head up while tackling once the fines pile up high enough.

Another recent NFL rule change on account of player safety involved kickoffs.  Teams now kickoff from their 35-yard line, instead of the 30 -- where kickoffs were spotted between 1994 and last season.  A sportswriter buddy of mine went spastic about the change, predicting the ruination of football.  I explained to him a) NFL kickoffs used to be spotted from the 35, and b) players' higher exposure to injuries during kickoffs due to c) the laws of physics.  He countered by rationalizing kickoff returns as potential scoring plays, data showing their infrequency and escalated physical risks aside.  I added the NFL has a history of changing rules, partially motivated by aesthetic considerations, that have tipped the balance of the game toward offenses and diluted the quality of play on the field.  I went so far as to posit rule changes favoring passing have fundamentally altered the game to a bad effect.  NFL offenses' new emphasis on passing has morphed pro football into a glorified video game of oversized humans colliding into one another at fantastic speeds, their sprints no longer interrupted by the contact than comes naturally with scrimmaging.  Pro defenses have countered with ever more aggressive and frequent blitzing using ultra-athletic man-child freaks of nature positioned further and further away from the line of scrimmage.  Just imagine if NASCAR constantly tweaked its rules so that the race cars could travel faster and faster, or race distances were made longer and longer, at the expense of driver safety.  The organization's integrity would go right down the toilet.

Besides player safety and the NFL's integrity, two potential beneficiaries of genuine rule changes are running backs and the ground game.  There are multiple teams who make only a gratuitous attempt at running the ball.  Absent from the current pro game are the 'every down' backs who possessed rushing, blocking, and pass catching skills.  I might be guilty of retrostalgia on this point -- pining away for an era that never really existed.  But it seems to me that in the pre-West Coast offense days, successful teams were built around bruising, punishing running games.  Before the mid-90's it seemed teams didn't run the ball just to control the clock to protect leads as time was running out; it was understood a successful ground game exacted a psychological price from your opponent.  So teams ran the ball as an exercise in manhood.  And what fan didn't get amped at the sight of Earl Campbell trucking Isiah Robertson, or Tony Dorsett exploding past defenders as if their feet were cemented in place?  Running backs suffered catastrophic injuries then too (see, 'Gale Sayers'), however I don't recall hearing of head injuries to the extent we're hearing about them today.    My understanding of physics leads me to believe the force generated by two 250-lb men crashing into each other from points beginning 7 yards apart is much less than that generated by the same 250-lb men crashing into each other from points beginning 15 yards apart.  I have no evidence to support my suspicion that the rise in head injuries being reported by pro football players corresponds with rule changes aimed, in part, at 'liberating' play.  OTOH, I do believe should the NFL re-implement select rules to take some of air out of passing games, there will be a corresponding drop in players suffering head injuries. 

Let's hope the NFL does the right thing. 

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