Are NFL Player Injuries Up, or Has Reporting Just Improved?

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Are NFL Player Injuries Up, or Has Reporting Just Improved?
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Adrian Peterson in obvious pain after tearing his ACL last season.

One of the factors central to every NFL season is injuries.  

Whether it is a star player recovering from one or a team rocked hard by a rash of them, they have decisive impacts on how each team’s season unfolds.

More than just affecting the on-field product, injuries are a hot-button issue for the long-term future and viability of the league. While the proposal for an 18-game regular season has been shelved for the time being, there are more pressing matters now with player safety, especially as it relates to brain injuries.

Thousands of former players have filed a lawsuit against the NFL which claims the league hid information linking football-related head trauma to permanent brain injuries. With the suicides of former players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson happening in manners allowing for the scientific study of their brains, continued research will only further show the health dangers of playing professional football.

To better study the injury problem, last year during the lockout, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) contracted Edgeworth Economics to analyze injury data for recent NFL seasons.

The company continues to study injury trends and data. You can view some of their results here, and we will now look at several of their findings in detail.

 

Increase in Minor Injuries

There was an increase of 1,302 total injuries reported last season, bringing the 2010 total of 3,191 up to 4,493 in 2011. This includes everything from the start of training camp through the Super Bowl.

The number of “minor” injuries—defined as injuries that keep a player out of action for less than eight days—skyrocketed in 2011, as seen in green by the following graphic, provided by Edgeworth Economics and the NFL Injury Surveillance System (NFLISS) (for a larger image, click here):

In 2011, stricter rules were set in place for the recording of injuries, so it does not necessarily mean last season was any more injury filled than past seasons. There was just more complete recording of all the minor injuries—tweaks, strains—players can sustain over the course of a long season.

However, the improvement in recording cannot explain the 17 percent increase in “moderate” injuries, which see a player out of action for eight to 21 days.

A good theory may be that the lockout had a negative impact on the workout schedule of players, so they may not have been in the same shape as past seasons. Also, they were unable to access team doctors and specialists during the lockout, which was a factor that worked against Peyton Manning’s recovery from neck surgery in Indianapolis.

While Manning had to deal with four neck operations, it is the area above the neck that is understandably of most concern to all parties. You can fix your damaged knee or rotator cuff in due time, but the brain is not meant to be tampered with.

 

How the Kickoff Rule Really Changed Concussions

One of the big rule changes in 2011 was moving the kickoff five yards ahead, to the 35-yard line. Though fans bickered about the lack of returns this created, it was done for the sake of player safety.

Some of the biggest collisions in football happen on kick returns, because they provide some of the rare instances in which you can have two teams, with running starts, mow each other down Braveheart-style on a large, open field. This is also why wedge-blocking was reduced to a two-man scheme in 2009.

By the raw numbers (see chart below for more details), you can see the kickoff rule change did help decrease mild traumatic brain injuries (MTBIs or concussions) in 2011:

  • In the 2010 season, there were 270 reported concussions, and 35 were from kickoff returns (13 percent).
  • In the 2011 season, there were 266 reported concussions, and 20 were from kickoff returns (7.5 percent).

Concussions from kick returns went down 43 percent, while making up 5.5 percent fewer of the total concussions. You can see there was still roughly the same number of concussions on the season, but kickoffs were no longer as significant.

That is because the kickoff return had a large part of its significance reduced last season by the increase in touchbacks. Though it's still possible for a player to sustain a concussion or other injury on a touchback, the chances are far less likely without the ball being put in play.

The extra five yards saw touchbacks more than double, to 43.5 percent of all kickoffs last season. Only 53.5 percent of kickoffs were actually returned.

However, the key number comes in the decrease in concussions per kick return from 1.72 percent in 2010 to 1.45 percent in 2011. Essentially, the rate of injury on a real kick return is going to be about the same each season, and the only way the five-yard rule makes kickoffs safer is by eliminating nearly 30 percent of them from the game.

Should 2012 have a similar number of kickoffs and touchbacks but an increase to 24 concussions—only four more concussions than last year, for a rate of 1.75 percent per return—then the change will look even less impressive.

They have eliminated the big wedge. Furthermore, there is little the NFL can do to make kickoffs safer than what they did with the five-yard rule, and that is to make them less common.

With all the extra yardage for offenses to gobble up as they did in record fashion in 2011, the league is probably content with what the rule change is accomplishing.

 

Which Teams Injured Opponents the Most, Least?

You can file this under the “New Orleans Saints Bountygate Metric.” For the 2011 season, Edgeworth Economics looked at the number of injuries each team caused to its opponents.

The Oakland Raiders, known for their lack of discipline, led the way, with 97 opponent injuries. Baltimore was right behind them, with 90.

The New York Giants won the Super Bowl but had the fifth-fewest injuries inflicted, with 47. The New England Patriots were not far away, with 56, or just as many as Jim Harbaugh’s San Francisco 49ers.

There is no real correlation between how many injuries your opponent has against you and what your record is for the season, though it would be interesting to do a historical study just to see where the likes of embattled coach Gregg Williams would rank each year with his alleged bounty systems in multiple NFL cities.

For instance, the 2011 Saints ranked 11th, with 73 opponent injuries.

 

When Do Injuries Occur Most Often?

Edgeworth Economics tracked injuries from the start of training camp through the Super Bowl. You can see in their following graphic the difference in 2011 (red line) versus the 2004-2010 average number of injuries per week (click here for larger picture):

In each case, injuries trend downward as the season progresses. At the start of the season, you have many players coming in at levels below peak physical shape, so it is not uncommon to see a lot of hamstring-type injuries occur this time of year.

Toward the end of the season and playoffs, concussions have actually trended upwards, which could be a sign of more aggressive play when the games have the biggest stakes.

 

Conclusion: Injuries Moving Forward

The NFL’s injury problem is reaching the territory of what big tobacco companies faced when they had to admit the dangers of smoking. Pretty soon, a player’s helmet may come with its own warning label.

Realistically, football will and always should be a physical game that teeters toward man-on-man violence at times. No one wants to see flag football or two-hand touch, though that may be the only way you could create a realistically safe game.

While the league must continue working toward player safety with the best equipment and enforcement of safety rules, there is not much it can really do to take the risk of injury out of the game.

Dropping the idea of an 18-game season would also be smart.

Players have to understand what they sign up for. While the NFL can bring them money and fame, the truth is it can also take a physical toll that can shorten players' lifespans and leave them disabled in retirement.

Often, injuries are random events. Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL last season on a very innocent-looking play in which he was not even contacted. That can happen to anyone on any of the tens of thousands of plays in a NFL season.

What the NFL can do is make sure players are in an environment where they feel comfortable to report whatever injury they feel they have. There is an unwritten law of toughness for players—to play through injury no matter what—and partially it is for fear of losing jobs.

When the injuries are reported, players must be given the best treatment to fully recover and play again when healthy.

More research can be done to pinpoint the exact nature of how injuries occur. That would include looking at times in the games, whether given plays are runs or a passes, certain formations, etc.

It is unfeasible to think you could outlaw running the ball or any normal type of scrimmage play, though the NFL did see a chance to decrease injuries by limiting kick returns and put that into action last season. However, with numbers in 2011 similar to those in 2012, we see that concussions just went up in other types of plays.

Any further changes to the game to prevent injury would drastically alter the sport we know and love.

Unlike tobacco, we the spectators do not take in any secondhand smoke. All the danger is on the players, and now that they have taken legal action, the NFL is more aware than ever about the health risks of playing football.

Like big tobacco, the NFL must strike up a compromise with the players to keep the product going strong.

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer and researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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