Flem File: Painless fixes for NFL injuries
During a loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11, St. Louis Rams cornerback Marquis Johnson suffered a lacerated spleen that required hospitalization. He recovered, but the Rams' seventh-round pick out of Alabama in 2010 was lost for the season, making Johnson the 10th Rams cornerback to go on injured reserve this season. This left the St. Louis franchise and their fans with this exciting, hopeful scenario: After losing the 211th-best player from the 2010 draft, a 2-10 team giving up almost 25 points a game needed to go out and find a (deep breath) new backup to the backup of the backup of the backup of the backup of the backup of the backup of the backup of the backup of the backup of their original starting cornerback.
Unfortunately, the Rams' cataclysmic situation at cornerback is, in fact, rather commonplace in the injury-riddled NFL, where success in the month of December has become more about attrition than talent, preparation or execution.
Even before the month of doom, in Indy a single injury to Peyton Manning sent the Colts' once-proud franchise into a death spiral. At one point or another this season, the valiant Texans have lost their best running back, best defensive player, best wideout and two best quarterbacks and now face the prospect of going to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history under the command of T.J. Yates, the first quarterback from North Carolina to ever start a game in the NFL. Peyton Hillis, Michael Vick, Matt Cassel, Chad Henne, Jay Cutler, Troy Polamalu, Darren McFadden, Jamal Charles -- the list goes on and on.
And -- hike … grind, snap, twist -- on.
"You can play basketball or baseball and go 10 years without an injury, or at the most maybe jam your little finger or something," former Giants Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara told me this summer before he was cut for, well, being injured. "But with football the injury risk is 100 percent. You aren't risking injury, you know it's gonna happen. Bones, tendons, cuts, breaks -- if you play, you will get hurt. But that's why we love it so much. That's why our culture defines football as the ultimate tough-man sport. There's an element to it that's not for everybody. It's dangerous, it's cutthroat, it's high risk and high reward. It's about loving the game and playing like every moment's your last because you never know."
Only, in today's NFL we do know. On Monday night in Jacksonville, for example, the Jaguars were trying to compete against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with a secondary that featured Ashton Youboty, who had been signed off the street three weeks ago, and rookie Kevin Rutland, who had five career tackles to his credit and was later benched -- in favor of Morgan Trent, who had been signed off the street five days earlier. (Honestly, I thought Ashton Youboty was the name of an Axe cologne.)
What this means is that the NFL's injury epidemic has gotten to the ridiculous point where, as a former college athlete, still in decent shape, not afraid of contact and if I could pull off a sub 5.0 in the 40, had I been in Jacksonville or St. Louis doing a story last week, there's a halfway decent chance I'd be on an NFL roster right now.
I ask you: Shouldn't we expect a little bit more?
Sure, the NFL will point to the Packers, a team that had 15 players on IR when they made their Super Bowl run. Or the fact that, according to a study at Harvard, at the midway point of the season injuries were right on par, or even a tad lower, than the previous two seasons (145 players on IR in 2011 compared with 189 in 2010 and 151 in 2009.) This data proves that nothing is significantly different this season.
To which I respond: exactly! That's my entire point. Nothing has changed. And if it never does, injuries could eventually erode the competitive nature of the NFL to the point that fans will lose their appetite for the uber-violence that drives the sport's popularity. Once football gets to the point where luck, health and survival become more important than teamwork, sacrifice, intelligence and toughness, the NFL essentially becomes pro wrestling.
And that's before the lawyers get involved. I've mentioned this before, but what would happen if fans in Chicago paid $200 to see U2 at Soldier Field, and when they showed up for the gig, because Bono and the boys had all gotten food poisoning, fans were forced to endure Nickelback instead. Sorry folks, all sales final -- no refunds. Yes, correct, there'd be a riot. Now, apply this to the NFL. A Bears fan has invested several thousand dollars for season tickets with the assumption that he paid for a product that was to be led by QB Jay Cutler. But when he showed up on Sunday for the Chiefs game, he got Caleb Hanie instead. And no one says a word. The NFL gets away with the kind of bait and switch no other audience in the entertainment world would ever stand for.
The argument is you can't legislate safety, or fewer injuries, into a game as violent as the NFL. There's also the complaint -- usually by people who miss four days of work with the sniffles -- that any changes would wimpify the game and that players just need to suck it up. Both are, of course, ridiculous. In fact, starting in 1906 -- when President Theodore Roosevelt led the charge to eliminate dangerous mass football plays such as the flying wedge -- the game has followed a regular pattern of manipulating its rulebook in order to make the game safer and more entertaining. In just the past six years the league has banned, among other things, the horse-collar tackle, the three-man wedge on kickoff returns, hits on defenseless players, crackback blocks and leading with the helmet.
So what are a few more tiny adjustments for the betterment of the game?
Below, I've come up with a handful of ideas -- granted, many of them are what you would call, in the classic Flem File sense, "outside the box" -- that might help solve or at least curb the NFL's injury epidemic before it's too late and we're all kicking back to watch Monday night MLS.
Protect the QB like the punterI was in Houston when Andre Johnson first hurt his hammy, and I talked at length to QB Matt Schaub the next day. I came away with the sense that all football players, but especially quarterbacks, play with an understanding that sooner or later they're going to get hurt, and bad.
Everyone is going to freak out about this one, but once you calm down you'll see just how close we already are to this. As of now, you cannot hit a quarterback above the shoulders, below the knees, into the ground, while he's in the grasp or after he releases the ball. So is it really that big of a leap for the NFL to make them off-limits altogether, like the punter? Quarterbacks are the lifeblood of this multibillion-dollar business. By the end of this season, almost half the starting passers will be affected somehow by injuries. The game's future customers have been weaned on the Web, iPods and Madden, and to open their checkbooks for tickets and jerseys they will need to be entertained with exciting, explosive, high-scoring football. That requires healthy QBs. Which means it's more than likely we could see this happen in the next 10-20 years.
Until then, I've never understood why teams don't just back the quarterback up 12 yards, like a punter, and long-snap him the ball on passing downs. A universal truth of the game that teams don't exploit enough: The ball will always move faster than the man. You'd have to adjust the timing and the routes, but even an unblocked defensive end wouldn't be able to cover 12-15 yards fast enough to get to the quarterback before the ball left his hands.
Widen the fieldMore space equals fewer collisions and fewer injuries. Most NFL fields could easily accommodate a field that's 7½ yards wider on each side. For some reason, the NFL has hash marks that are just 18½ feet wide. Spreading them to 40 feet, like in college, would create almost 30 extra feet of space on the wide side of the field. This, in turn, would give players more room to operate, force defenses to become more laterally proficient and, by necessity, quicker and smaller.
Change the neutral zoneCurrently, the neutral zone is the width of the football, or less than a foot. Why not widen it to a yard? This would lessen some of the joint-snapping pileups at the line of scrimmage and give offensive linemen a slight advantage in protecting the QB by allowing them more time and space to set up in a balanced stance and engage defenders with their hands.
Allow six men on the lineReducing the number of players required on the line of scrimmage from seven to six would allow an extra player to go downfield. To counter this, defenses would have to consider developing a full man-to-man scheme that would tilt the game toward smaller, faster players while keeping them closer to each other and producing fewer violent collisions.
Fire meIn the past year I've interviewed Arian Foster, Michael Vick, Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and Fred Jackson. They've all suffered major injuries. So clearly I must be some kind of a jinx. My last interview? Aaron Rodgers. Don't worry, Packers fans, I'm sure it's just a coincidence.
The Ditka RuleWant to stop players from leading with their heads? Take the face masks off the helmets or replace them with the old kicker's single bar. Wish I could take credit for this one, but it belongs to Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who in October 2008 told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
"I said a long time ago, if you want to change the game take the mask off the helmet. It will change the game a lot. If you want to change the game and get it back to where people aren't striking with the head and using the head as a weapon, take the mask off the helmet. A lot of pretty boys aren't going to stick their face in there."
Ditka's idea is a riff off the notion that if the helmets weren't as technologically advanced, players would be less likely to use them as weapons. Makes sense. Except for the fact that in the early 20th century, when they didn't even use helmets, it was not uncommon for 20 or so players to die on the field each season.
Elective surgeryThe success of Tommy John elbow surgery, which often makes a pitcher's arm better after the operation, has me thinking: How long until we start seeing football players electively replacing and improving their ACLs and Achilles' heels?
Get rid of roster limitsWhile college teams have 85-man rosters, teams in the NFL are allowed to carry only 53 players (along with an eight-man practice squad) and just 45 "active" players on game day (plus an emergency quarterback). Lack of depth is one reason why players feel pressure to play hurt and risk greater injury.
I used to think that boosting the number to 60 would alleviate the problem. Then I realized that, originally, roster limits in the NFL were instituted to keep costs down. I don't think a few extra players would break a league that pockets $10 billion a year. Also, doesn't the salary cap already limit how many players a team can use? So what's the point of roster limits? As long as teams stay below the salary cap, they should be allowed to sign as many players as they want.
Eliminate the kickoffThe league moved the ball up to the 35-yard line this year, and guess what? The return average of 24.1 yards is almost 2 yards more than in 2010. I love the speed and excitement of kick returns as much as the next guy, but simply placing the ball on the 25 after scores would instantly, and drastically, reduce one of the biggest dangers of the game: high-speed collisions during runbacks conducted by fringe players incentivized to take risks because they're trying to make, or stay on, a roster by starring on special teams.
Downed by the groundFighting for extra yards while being impeded or held up by a defender often turns ball carriers into human tackling dummies. Even more dangerous is the way would-be tacklers launch themselves at players frozen in space like this only to miss their target and take out teammates who are unprepared and unprotected for contact. Understanding just how much we all like watching guys battle for extra yards, the NFL should, nevertheless, just switch to the NCAA rule where a player is ruled down once he touches the ground.
Legalize recovery drugsSooner or later, the NFL has to come to grips with the fact that it has created a sport that even exceptional humans cannot perform without suffering major injuries. I know even the mention of steroids or performance-enhancing drugs sends everyone into a self-righteous twitter. But as far as I can tell, the average sports fan doesn't really care how the athletes get the job done, just as long as they deliver that weekly escape to the fan's TV. What's more, if you can't play without taking painkillers, isn't that the very definition of performance-enhancing? And yet, stuff like Toradol is commonly used across the NFL this time of year to get guys on the field, and no one offers even the slightest objection. If steroids and HGH help athletes recover quicker and there's a way for the league to administer them legally and safely and with no long-term damage to the athletes, shouldn't the NFL at least consider it?
Hold guys in reserveSeveral years ago I was riding in former Vikings coach Brad Childress' golf cart at training camp when I threw this idea out and, I swear, he almost veered off the sidewalk and hit a security guard. Childress is a great coach and a thinker, and from time to time dating back to his days in Philly I'd hit him with wild football theories as they came to me. (Someday I'll tell you about our debate regarding my idea for "The Second Line of Scrimmage.")
Anyway, the idea was to hold back several key players for the first eight games of the season so that just as other teams were being decimated by injuries and worn down, you're team would get an influx of fresh bodies and new blood. If playing on Monday night and getting one less day to recover has such a profoundly negative effect on teams, what would it mean to hit December and be able to activate a healthy all-purpose blocker, a playmaker on offense, a linebacker and a DB during the final push for the playoffs? (Doesn't the NHL already kinda do this occasionally by plucking guys right out of college and bringing them up right before the playoffs?)
Childress shot down the idea pretty quick. There's no room on a 53-man roster to hold back players, and if you put them on the practice squad other teams could sign them. (OK, yes, we'd have to tweak a few personnel rules to make this work.) He also said parity in the league makes the margin of error for winning so small that you could never afford to hold back talent. By the time you brought the fresh guys in, you'd already be out of the playoff race. And who can predict what positions you might need? Too many what-ifs, he said. I stayed with it until Childress looked at me like Will Ferrell in "Old School" after he shot himself with a tranquilizer gun.
Childress said: I like you, I like you, you've got some wild ideas -- but you're crazy, man, you're really crazy.
Oh, and the Jags trying to save their season with a defensive back they grabbed off the street who had less than a week to prepare -- that's not?
Do nothingWe're really good at this one.
Ignore the issue. Call anyone who wants to limit injuries a wimp. Let winning become more about luck and health and not talent. Let the competitive nature of the game slowly erode. Let the execution, excitement and entertainment fade.
Just sit back and do nothing and wait until, one day, a national pastime, a beautiful sport and an entire league resembles the St. Louis Rams secondary.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."
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