Football is considered one of the most violent sports in the world. Players take big risks every time they get on the field, not just with their careers, but with their lives and long-term health.
The NFL has a service to the players, the families of those players, and the fans to protect those players.
Rules like the "crown of the helmet" rule are a good step in doing so, but they are one of just many steps. Beyond changing the rules on the field, the league is smart to bring in independent sideline neurologists, and should still look to advances in helmet and equipment technology and science as well.
It's easy to understand why players may be upset. They are being asked to adjust after being taught to do things a certain way for as long as they've been playing the game.
Ray Rice already railed against the rule (via BaltimoreRavens.com), but the answer to his anger was to be found in his very own response (emphasis mine):
"If I'm in the open field and you're coming at me and I'm coming at you, and I lower my shoulder and I get flagged, I'll appeal it. You're going to protect yourself as a runner. Not one running back, you ask anyone in the league, not one is going to change their game. People are just going to have to deal with the consequences the first couple years."
Lowering the shoulder is fine. The NFL doesn't want players spearing other players with their heads. They shouldn't be, anyway.
Not, at least, if they care about their own long-term health and safety.
With the new rule, the NFL is trying to prevent hits such as the one that occurred between Patriots running back Stevan Ridley and Ravens safety Bernard Pollard in the AFC Championship Game.
While many Patriots fans believe Pollard to be a bad luck charm for the Patriots (having been in on plays that injured Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski in the past), this was clearly not his fault. He went low to tackle Ridley, and Ridley dipped his head square into Pollard's as the two collided.
Ridley went down hard, and was seemingly unconscious before he even hit the ground.
If the rule prevents hits like that, how can you be against it?
Running backs, it seems, could use a little extra protection. With 19 concussions on running backs in 2012 (according to PBS Massachusetts), they were the third-most concussed position in the NFL.
So clearly, rules can help, but they can only go so far, and a lot more needs to be done—especially considering the average from 1989-1993 was 89 concussions per year, which was nearly doubled with 170 in 2012.
The numbers are just one part of the problem. Another issue is the diagnosis of concussions, and who has the final say in whether a player goes back into a game or not. It's always been team doctors who have made the decision, but now, there will be independent sideline neurologists on hand for every game.
Just announced re: NFL health & safety issues - next season teams will have unaffiliated neurological consultant on sidelines during games.— Andrea Kremer (@Andrea_Kremer) January 31, 2013
Bleacher Report's injury expert Will Carroll pointed out why this is an important step to take in player safety:
A marked increase in the number of players who are held out after concussions would create a great controversy—did teams push players back out or is the new independent doctor holding players to a higher standard? This change does appear to take the decision for return to play out of the hands of team.
Adding independent neurologists takes another variable out of the equation.
As for the variables involved in the actual impact of one player against another, the helmets and the equipment as a whole can always be improved to help prevent concussions.
The ideas are certainly out there (via PopSci.com):
"There is not a week that passes that I don't see a new device," says Kevin Guskiewicz, a University of North Carolina sports medicine researcher and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient who also chairs the NFL's Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules. "There's a binder weighing down the corner of my desk. I don't think you're going to see the NFL flat-out endorsing a product, but they certainly feel that they're responsible for trying to help prevent these injuries. So we're going to be reviewing these technologies in order to say, here are three or four that need to be studied further."
The funding is there—the NFL recently gave a $100 million research grant to Harvard University for the research of helmet technology, and Purdue University biomechanical engineering professor Eric Nauman says he has helmet technology that could cut G-force to the brain by 50 percent.
All these are great steps in the advances toward player safety. Unfortunately for NFL players, concussion numbers will never be zero across the board.
That's just the nature of the violent sport.
"Concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk," said Elliot J. Pellman to Sports Illustrated way back in 1994. Pellman is the former lead doctor of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. He added that a football player is "like a steelworker who goes up 100 stories, or a soldier."
Former Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Winston admitted, "I've already come to the understanding I won't live as long because I play this game and that's okay, that's the choice I've made."
Dr. Bennet Omalu of the Brain Injury Research Institute is widely credited with having discovered the link between football and a degenerative brain disorder known as CTE—short for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (and yes, it's as scary as it sounds).
Omalu has also said that a cure could be on the way.
I have personally proposed a drug cocktail based on my knowledge, research, and findings on the cases I have done. I strongly believe that I have identified a cocktail of drugs that would actually cure concussions, and would also prevent concussions from progressing to permanent brain damage. And for those who have already developed brain damage, we could give them this cocktail to impede the progression of the brain damage.
Who knows how close we are to such an earth-shaking advance in medical research, but the fact that lead doctors even think such a "cocktail" to be possible is encouraging, to say the very least.
Which is the most important advance toward player safety?
That being said, as long as players are flying high-speed at one another and as long as 200-plus-pound bodies crash into other 200-plus-pound bodies on every single play, concussions will be a problem in the NFL. But to borrow from Dan Patrick, while the NFL cannot stop it, it can hope to contain it.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless otherwise noted, all stats obtained from Pro-Football-Reference.com, and all quotes obtained firsthand or via team press releases.