You could see it on Tom Brady’s face last night. The frustration in his voice was obvious but he knew there was nothing he could do.
“I hate to see it, but it really is the only way defenders can hit now,” Brady said, according to WEEI. “I bet if you asked the players, they would really rather go high than low. I don’t think it’s dirty. I just think that is how football is played now.”
Brady was of course referring to the play that led to the injury of New England’s star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronk suffered what is now known to be a bone-bruise on his right knee after getting hit there late in the fourth quarter. The point that was made last night during Tom Brady’s postgame press conference may not have been something that was physically said, but was still clear as day; the NFL has an injury crisis on its hands, and there is no end in sight.
The NFL is caught in what is called a “Catch-22”. Merriam-webster.com defines a Catch-22 as “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule”.
Here’s the situation:
Over the last decade or so the NFL has been fighting lawsuits from former players citing negligence in the case of concussion safety. Former players are claiming that the NFL knew the dangers involved with playing football and the risks of brain injury that come with playing, but did not disclose this information to the players. After the 2012-2013 season where there were over 160 players who sustained head injuries, the league banned players from lowering their heads to deliver a hit in the open field. Here’s the rule as described in a March 2013 article from the latimes.com:
“The rule imposes a 15-yard penalty if a runner or tackler initiates forcible contact by delivering a blow with the crown (top) of his helmet when both players are clearly outside the tackle box. The tackle box is defined as an area extending from offensive tackle to tackle and from three yards beyond the line of scrimmage back to the end zone behind the line of scrimmage. Incidental contact by the helmet of a runner or tackler is not a foul.”
This is where the Catch-22 comes in.
With the new rule, players had to fundamentally change the way they were tackling. Rather than launching themselves head first, they had to figure out a new way to tackle offensive players who had only been getting bigger, stronger and harder to take down. So instead of going high, players began to go low, specifically at the knees.
Football is a violent sport with the object being, as a defensive player, to cause as much physical punishment as possible. This puts the NFL in an impossible situation right now with regards to player safety given the limits that have been set on how defensive players can play. The quality of play this season, more so than any other in recent memory, has been significantly worse due to the number of injuries sustained by the league’s top players. Jamal Charles, Carlos Hyde, Dion Lewis, Arian Foster, Le’Veon Bell, Joe Flacco, Julian Edelman, Jimmy Graham, Steve Smith Sr., Jordy Nelson and Kelvin Benjamin are just a few of the best players who are out for the rest of the season due to a lower body injury.
This is not a problem that the NFL can simply sweep under its rug like they tried to do with concussions. Fans, the media, and even the players themselves are noticing the drop in quality due to injuries/rules related to injuries and fear that it could be what dooms the sport. The following is an excerpt from a PBS Frontline report from 2013:
“Ravens safety Bernard Pollard tells CBS Sports that the NFL’s renewed emphasis on player safety is threatening the league’s future.
“’Thirty years from now, I don’t think it will be in existence,’ said Pollard. ‘I could be wrong. It’s just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going — where [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they’re throwing flags and everything else — there’s going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it.’”
In an article written on espn.com last Friday, Kevin Seifert wrote, “more players have already been placed on injured reserve because of confirmed ACL tears (38) than in all of 2012 (32) or 2011 (25), according to ESPN Stats & Information.”
Fans are more than aware of the injury problem at this point. According to a New York Post report from Sept. 2015, “The [NFL’s] latest Spending & Saving Tracker said 74.7 million Americans plan to participate in fantasy football this year, spending $4.6 billion, company spokeswoman Jane Di Leo said.”
With that many fans playing fantasy football, and millions more watching and rooting for players and teams on top of that, fans know all too well how many star players have gone down due to injury this year.
While these injuries have hurt the quality of play, it hasn’t stopped people from watching. According to a bostonglobe.com report from early Nov. 2015:
“Midway through this season, the trends suggest that ratings and viewership numbers will trump even last year’s. Thursday Night Football is up 6 percent in viewership this year from the same date a year ago, averaging 17.6 million viewers, up from 16.7 million last year. Overall, CBS is averaging 18.5 million viewers for its NFL telecasts, which would be the highest for the AFC game package in 29 years. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” continues to be a ratings behemoth, averaging 23.6 million viewers this season, making it the top-ranked program on television this fall. ESPN is averaging 13.2 million viewers for its “Monday Night Football” telecasts. So far this season, NFL games account for the top 10 and 19 of the top 20 programs on television this fall.”
The ratings have never been the NFL’s problem, as people are always going to watch football as long as it’s around. However, player safety has become a major issue in this league and more than just players are beginning to pay attention. In the same Frontline report, Days before Super Bowl XLVII (47), President Barack Obama told The New Republic that,
“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”
With even the President saying that his concerns about the risk of sustaining an injury while playing football would be enough to keep his child from playing the sport, who is to say that millions of parents across America don’t share Obama’s sentiment?
It is time for the NFL to take a long and hard look at itself. The league needs to figure out how to protect its players, because what’s going on right now just ain’t cutting it. Maybe it starts at the youth level, where players first learn how to tackle. Maybe players are training too hard and wearing their bodies down. Or maybe players have just gotten plain old unlucky this year. Any of those are plausible reasons for why the NFL is going through this injury crisis. However one thing is certain, this is a problem that needs to be addressed and it isn’t going away any time soon.
Photo via baltimoreravens.about.com