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The alarm worked out of the blue. In the days leading up to the Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, the NFL’s health and safety team issued a call for action in response to an increase in injuries to special teams, especially on points. The frequency of lost time for injuries that occurred on point games has increased by about 50% over the last two seasons, according to league data, which until then had not been widely disseminated.
“Before I go back there, I say, ‘I don’t care about my life.’ “It takes a special person to look up in the air and have a lot of people trying to rip your head off.”
In a series of interviews in February, NFL chief physician Dr. Allen Sills that the increase in special team injuries required “immediate attention” from the league’s decision makers. But when NFL owners, managers, and coaches gathered in March for their annual league meetings, there was no consensus on what to do. The NFL largely expressed the concerns amid the indecision of the competition committee and setbacks by some coaches, who suggested that the increase – specifically in ACLs and soft tissue injuries – was the result of pandemic-related roster movements. Special team games accounted for 30% of ACL tears and 29% of muscle injuries in the lower extremities – even though they only represent 17% of the games in a typical NFL game.
Earlier calls for action, particularly around concussion in 2018, raised awareness of a high-priority issue, leading to immediate rule and protocol changes. Reported concussions have dropped about 25% since the league’s call for action in 2018, but one in six occurred on special teams in 2021, according to data released by the league in February. This time, the NFL is ready to play the 2022 season without addressing the issue of special team injuries, which the league’s medical staff has proclaimed to be urgent.
“It turns out,” Sills said recently, “that it’s a complex process.”
Several coaches – including the Pittsburgh Steelers ‘Mike Tomlin and the Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh – suggested the injury could be a temporary trend attributable to unique shift planning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know we do not like the injury rate,” Tomlin said during the March meetings, “but that does not necessarily mean that something structural or schematic needs to be done in the points game. I think all these discussions start “First and foremost, look at the damage itself, look at the tape, the damage that occurred at that game to see why.”
NFL teams discarded rosters at a historic rate during the pandemic as they worked to maintain 53-man teams amid waves of positive tests. More players appeared in at least one game during the 2021 season (2,372) than in any other season in NFL history, with the exception of the 1987 strike season, in which each franchise signed an entire list of substitutes. The second highest total came in 2020 (2,286), according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Harbaugh, who argued that the increase in soft tissue injuries such as pulled buttocks could be reduced by better conditioning, said a rule change based on current data would be an “overrun”, adding: “I do not think it’s that big of a problem. . “
Caught in the middle of the discussion, the league’s competition committee decided to sit still and “go one more year and see where the injury data is,” said committee chairman Rich McKay. This patience is probably informed by the concussion reaction from 2018, which included the so-called “helmet rule” – an attempt to reduce contact with lowered heads. It turned out to be so difficult to judge that the league instructed referees to refer to it generically as “unnecessary roughness” when marking it.
Even before the pandemic, however, points had emerged as the most dangerous game in the NFL. According to league data, injuries sustained during the points game caused the highest percentage of lost matches on an annual basis since the 2015 season. Returners and shooters who are tasked with running 40 yards or more at as close to full speed as they can get are the hardest hit according to Sills.
“You have athletes who run long distances,” said Dr. Scott Rodeo, a sports medicine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery and chief physician for the New York Giants team. “They run at high speeds, with a fast planting and cutting, decelerations in the open field, and sometimes it’s reckless. When you run at very high speeds and have collisions at high speeds, a pretty good working theory is not true. there. “
Both Rodeo and Sills are optimistic about the action the league can take to lower the ACL injury rate on punts. Rodeo monitors research that can help identify players at risk of tearing the knee ligament, determined by factors that include abnormal geometry of the knee as well as deficits in balance, coordination and neuromuscular control in the hip and core areas. Applying this research with various conditioning techniques, protective equipment, and “subtle rule changes,” Rodeo said, would “give me some optimism that you can start solving this problem by chopping it.”
The competition committee oversees a rule adjustment that the USFL implemented in its initial season. Gunners are required to line up inside the painted numbers, making it easier to block them at the scrimmage line and perhaps harder for them to reach maximum speed. There could be other ways to minimize the amount of spacecraft cover and the speed at which they do so, but in the end, Sills said, “You will always be sure that your solution solves the problem.”
At this point, not everyone agrees that there is a problem. And for unrelated reasons, there are already fewer points in NFL games. As coaches shift to go after it on fourth downs more often, point totals have dropped to historic lows. The number of points per matches in 2019 (8.4), 2020 (7.4) and 2021 (7.6) are the three lowest in a season since at least 1981, according to NFL data.
If anything, the decline makes the injury trend sharper. If the injury rate continues in 2022, the NFL will have decisions to make in 2023.
“It’s a complex game, but it’s the types of injuries and where we see them,” Sills said. “And we will continue [working] on that play. The fact that it is difficult does not mean that we will not continue to solve it. “
Starring: ESPN Colts Reporter Mike Wells