The number of concussions and head injuries in the NFL is staggering.
With three high-profile NFL quarterbacks going down with concussions in the same weekend, the attention on head injuries as we head toward Week 11 will be as dedicated as any time in recent months. Yet, while the quarterbacks get our attention the most, research indicates the issue is far greater than a few signal-callers—it's time the entire league should be wrapped in bubble wrap.
Much of the attention given to those high-profile quarterbacks who went down in Week 10 with varying degrees of head injuries almost immediately shifted from player safety to prognosticating a return timetable and wondering how each player's absence could affect his team's playoff chances. But as I'll detail later, there are at least 68 other players who also deserve our attention.
Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles has what head coach Andy Reid has called a "pretty significant" concussion, and no timetable has been given for his return. Reports are left wondering if Vick, who has struggled behind a paper-thin offensive line all season, is done as the starting quarterback in Philadelphia as Reid tries anything to save his job.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith was hit in the head during the first quarter of the 49ers' game with the St. Louis Rams, staying in the game for a few plays before complaining about blurred vision and being pulled for the remainder of the game. Following the game, speculation of when Smith will return—he has an extra day because San Francisco plays on Monday night—became the hot topic of conversation.
Jay Cutler was hit late in the first half of the Sunday Night Football game against Houston and continued to participate for seven plays until he was pulled at halftime. Maligned for not checking Cutler's status sooner, the Bears have been backed by the NFL for handling the situation properly. Per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:
"Our office reviewed it with the [Bears] medical staff and it was properly handled," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello via Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times. "The team followed the correct protocol."
If that's the case, the protocol could use improvement. NBC broadcasters could tell from their vantage point that Cutler was foggy after his big hit. Despite a long break in play, Cutler was never seen taking extensive tests. Once he did take tests at halftime, the Bears ruled him out for the game.
While the conversation in Cutler's case has been focused on whether or not the Bears did the right thing by waiting to give him a thorough sideline test, the day-after conversation has people wondering if we will see Cutler and Smith or Colin Kaepernick and Jason Campbell.
The teams are all saying the right things, focused on the safety of their players more than rushing them back into a game too soon. Of course, it's important to put safety first when everyone is paying attention. When looking at the injury reports, one has to wonder if the same safety measures are being taken with all players, not just the big-ticket stars.
The NFL has specific standards in place by which any player ruled out with a concussion must pass a series of independent tests to be allowed back on the field. In the last few years, the league has increased the threshold for returning to play tenfold, taking every possible safety precaution they can think to implement and mandate.
It's just not enough.
Through 10 weeks in the NFL season, players have been listed with concussions on the official league injury report 68 times, a number sure to grow after this weekend's games. Of those 68 instances, 39 different players have been listed on their team's injury report with a concussion. Many of those players were listed as "Probable" on the report and more than a few played in games one week after suffering a concussion following a full or nearly-full week of practice.
Just 23 of the 68 times a player has been listed with a concussion was that player listed as "Out" for that week's game.
Now, that's not to say a player listed as probable, questionable or doubtful suited up and played in that week's game, but the numbers don't lie; just 17 of the 39 different players listed with a concussion on official NFL injury reports this season were listed as "Out" the following week.
That's a lot of passed threshold tests, which means one of two things: first, the concussions were mostly "mild" (if there is such a thing) and the teams were being overcautious by listing a player with that low-grade concussion in the first place; or second, the test is too easy to pass.
Looking at the injury reports in more depth, the number of concussions is not significantly greater than, say, a leg or knee injury. Knee injuries can be just as harmful to a player's career, but an injury to a player's brain can be far more harmful to his life after football. While the number of head injuries isn't out of the ordinary when compared to other parts of the body, the severity of those injuries must be.
It's one thing to spend the rest of your life with a limp. It's another to spend the rest of your life with headaches, depression and a loss of motor skills.
Still, I'll admit that 68 instances and 39 players on the injury list over 10 weeks doesn't seem that bad. The thing is, players aren't listed on the injury report during bye weeks, and some of the players who went from "Out" to a more favorable prognosis (or even remained out for a few weeks) would have been on the list during their bye week as well, raising that number of 68 instances by nearly a dozen.
And then there's this…the NFL allows teams to list players on the injury list with "head" injuries. Robert Griffin III suffered what was initially diagnosed as a concussion during Week 5 and was part of a heated national debate as to whether the quarterback would be able to play the following week.
Despite being officially placed as "Questionable" on the injury sheet, Griffin wasn't listed with a concussion. He officially had a "head" injury.
There have been 46 instances of players being listed with "head" injuries this season, with 32 different guys being given this ambiguous injury classification on the official league injury report through the first 10 weeks.
When we add the "head" injuries to the concussions, the numbers are far more concerning. There have already been 71 different players this season listed on the injury report with some injury to the head. Those players have been on the report 114 times in 10 weeks, not including those still injured during their team's bye weeks.
These numbers, remember, do not account for the head injuries that go unreported by players, many of whom are nervous about missing time for fear of losing their jobs.
Heck, Vick may end up losing his job in Philadelphia because of this injury. Reid has been asked week after week if he'd pull Vick in favor of rookie Nick Foles. Now, with Vick on the sidelines for at least a week, Reid has no choice but to go with Foles. If the kid performs well, Vick will be out of a job for the rest of the season and surely the Eagles will let him go at the end of the year, putting him not only out of a starting job, but one step closer to being out of the league.
What incentive, then, is there for Vick to tell anyone he has a concussion?
In his case, he had no choice because his hit was so obvious and took him out of the game at the time. But even for a high-profile player like Vick, there is more incentive to hide a potential brain injury that doesn't need immediate on-field attention from the trainers and play through it than report it and sit for a few weeks to heal. No matter what safety measures the NFL puts in place, the lack of guaranteed contracts will constantly create a situation where players do whatever they can to stay on the field, even if that means lying to medical staff.
What if there was a way to not only wrap the players in bubble wrap, but to wrap their contracts it in as well?
What if any player who suffered a concussion had to sit out a mandatory two weeks and if that time off led to them eventually losing their job to another player, insurance would kick in to guarantee the remainder of their deal?
It may not get players to stop trying to play while hurt, but it would protect their futures if they choose to sit long enough to let their brains properly heal. Of course, that doesn't help the teams in the playoff hunt. If Jay Cutler or Alex Smith are healthy enough to play but choose to sit an extra week to let their brains heal, there isn't an insurance policy on the planet that could protect them from the acrimony of their own fans.
It's all of us. Players, coaches, fans, media and the league all need to realize how important protecting the brain really is. We talk about it and wring our hands at the undeniable research, but when it comes to our favorite team, we want that player out there nine snaps out of 10. Until the issue is taken more seriously by everyone, including fans and the players themselves, the injury list will keep on growing week after week.
Someone order more bubble wrap.