When it comes to their concussion problem, the NFL is clearly making progress.
“Concussions in the league last year were down 29% in regular season games,” NFL EVP of Health and Safety Initiatives Jeffrey Miller said at the Scouting Combine. “We think that that’s an important number.”
However, Miller knows they must continue to lower those numbers.
“There is still a lot of work to do,” Miller said.
A new NFL rule instituted this past season, penalizing players for leading with the crown of his helmet to initiate contact, clearly had an impact. Guilty players are penalized 15 yards and could be ejected.
“We saw that use of helmet behavior, that led to a concussion, I mean lowering the head behavior that led to a concussion, decreased by about 20% this year,” Miller said.
However, while the numbers are down, helmet-to-helmet hits, the leading cause of concussions, are still a problem.
“40% of all concussions are still caused by helmet-to-helmet contact. Period,” Miller said. “Forget the lowering the head behavior. Just two helmets colliding results in 40% of the concussions. So that still is a significant number and one that we want to continue to drive down. This rule change is a big step in doing that and we began to see some behavior change.”
Kickoffs, with their high speed collisions, have historically caused a lot of concussions. So the NFL tweaked the kickoff rules last year, including disallowing running starts for defenders and changing how you can block, these changes significantly cut down on kickoff concussions.
“Concussions on kickoffs were down 38% over the last three-year average. So, we looked at ’15,’16 and ’17 where there was no rule change versus ’18 where there was, and we saw a 38% decrease,” Miller said. “When we did the video review of it, we found the primary decrease in concussions was caused by the elimination of the blind side, or the double-team block. Not having that blocking behavior in there seemed to have a significant concussion savings for the players involved.
“There was discussion around the speed of the play – potentially taking some of the higher speed out. The players still reached peak velocity on the play. It was a tick later because they were coming from a standing start.”
One area that still needs work are summer training camp practices.
“In the preseason practices, we did not see a decrease (in concussions),” Miller said. “The numbers were exactly flat. We define preseason as the first part of training camp, before the preseason games start.”
Concussions suffered by offensive linemen in training camp practices are still an issue.
“Disproportionally, the number of concussions suffered in preseason practices are to offensive linemen,” Miller said. “More than one quarter of all concussions, that number is 27% this year, but that is not an odd number on a year-over-year basis, were to offensive linemen.”
Offensive linemen, who are usually some of the taller players, have a tendency to lower their heads as they’re about to engage a defender.
Something else that helped lower overall concussion numbers are the millions of dollars the NFL has spent in recent years to improve helmet technology.
“From the perspective of innovation and a level of dynamism in helmets, for improved protection, we are seeing a lot, which has been a point of emphasis for the league for a while,” Miller said. “As you know, we have put significant resources into engineering work and as we’ve learned more and shared more with the helmet manufactures, we are starting to see the fruits of that in terms of more protective equipment for players.”
The next step in helmet technology, will be to design helmets specifically for the needs of each position.
“I think that we are getting close to the day, in the next couple years, where we will start to see position specific helmets as we understand what each position feels,” Miller said.
So while they still have a lot of work to do, the NFL is clearly moving in the right direction on the concussion front.