By 2019, the leaders of Pop Warner had enough. While there was no conclusive data to suggest that outlawing three-point stances would lower its players' exposure to head injuries, the idea made too much sense to ignore. And so a long-floated concept became policy for the youngest children in the largest youth football organization in America.
Pop Warner players ages 5-10, including all offensive and defensive linemen, are prohibited from putting their hand on the ground -- a three-point stance -- before the snap. "It's just kind of intuitively obvious," executive director Jon Butler said, that pre-snap positioning in a two-point stance would prevent many instances of the sub-concussive head impact believed to cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other forms of brain damage.
Less than a year later, a pilot study has emerged that helps confirm those instincts. In a paper published this spring, Stanford University professor emeritus Paul Auerbach joined Purdue University engineers Thomas Talavage and Eric Nauman to show that offensive linemen in The Spring League -- a professional-level developmental program -- absorbed 40% fewer head acceleration events (HAE) when starting from a two-point stance compared to those who started from a three-point stance. (They did not study defensive linemen.) Their findings prompted a longer study due to be submitted in the next year, but Auerbach said the initial data showed what appeared to be a beneficial effect.
"The real take-home message here is that we can study these things," Auerbach said. "Instead of arguing about it based on opinion, you can generate data on it."
The entire sports world has focused its health and safety efforts toward playing safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. But whenever football returns, it will continue an evolution away from one of its most iconic positions. USA Football, for instance, recommends two-point stances for most levels of its football development model. The Spring League, which is entering its fourth year, will ban three-point stances for offensive linemen in practices, scrimmages and games.
Those efforts coincide with the scheme-based transition underway at the high school, college and NFL levels toward two-point stances that better support spread offenses that feature shotgun formations and offensive linemen prioritized for pass blocking. In 2019, for instance, NFL quarterbacks were in shotgun on 61% of snaps.
The transition also marks a notable expansion of brain safety initiatives into the types of impact that usually do not cause concussions but occur regularly -- and are threats to the long-term health of players. According to the study, which covered three practices and one game in The Spring League, offensive linemen absorbed 253 HAEs whose force measured at least 20 Gs, the threshold the authors established for impact that can accumulate into some level of brain injury.
"We've been studying football for more than a decade," Talavage said, "and one thing we've learned is that large-scale dramatic changes are not really an option. If you make small, subtle changes on the youth level in practices, and if you make small, subtle changes in games, you can have an enormous impact. It's not hard, and it's not costly."
The risks of getting low
For decades, the default position for offensive linemen has been a three-point stance, with two feet and one hand touching the ground before the snap. They have sometimes used four-point stances, with both hands on the ground, in short-yardage situations, too. Defensive linemen followed the same pattern. A hand (or hands) on the ground naturally pulls down the rest of the body, positioning the lineman lower and in a better spot to win the leverage battle, especially for running plays. A two-point stance, with both feet but neither hand on the ground, was sometimes employed on obvious passing downs to put offensive linemen in a better position to pass block.
Inherent in that positioning, however, is that the helmet defaults into the first point of contact against an opponent when linemen are in a three- or four-point stance. To be sure, these hits aren't violent on a relative scale and rarely cause concussions. NFL offensive linemen, in fact, suffer between one and three concussions per year on the line of scrimmage, according to league data. Their average concussion takes place 6.5 yards away from their pre-snap position, usually when they pull and/or block on screens and long runs.
But their accumulation can still aggregate into brain injuries, a revelation that Talavage and Nauman have helped show. In earlier research, they demonstrated the neurological change that took place in high school players who hadn't been diagnosed with a concussion.
They got a chance to further pursue this avenue after being connected with Auerbach, who had published a Wall Street Journal column in 2018 that advocated for all linemen to begin in a two-point stance. A two-point stance, Auerbach theorized, would pull the head away from opponents. Brian Woods, commissioner of The Spring League, read the column, agreed with it and offered Auerbach a chance to study the hypothesis during one of the league's "showcase" events.
"We're a platform not only for player development," Woods said, "but also as an incubator for new technologies and rule experimentation."
Talavage and Nauman outfitted 78 Spring League player helmets with sensors to measure the force of each hit and used cameras to determine the position of each player at the snap of the ball. They chose 20 Gs as the threshold because their previous research had established it as a threshold for cumulative neurological changes. For context, they found that most (presumably mild) helmet contact near the line of scrimmage transfers about 40-50 Gs. A head-butt can be 50 Gs, they said.
In analyzing the data after three practices and one game, they found that HAEs above the force of 20 Gs could be reduced by 40% if three-point stances were abandoned.
"In my opinion," Auerbach said, "removal of any head acceleration event is helpful. Because I can't envision how a head acceleration event that results in a significant force to the brain, how that can be good for somebody."
The initial results prompted a more involved study during The Spring League's 2019 season. The resulting paper has yet to be published, but Nauman said their work has convinced them that brain safety concerns in football are "fixable" on a relative scale.
"There should be absolutely no difficulty in protecting players to the point where football is no more dangerous than any other sport they are going to play," Nauman said.
'We're doing the work now'
The NFL's $100 million health and safety initiative, announced in 2016, has focused largely on concussion reduction through improved helmet technology, changes to practice routines and new regulations, such as the 2018 helmet rule. But the league also is studying the effect of subconcussive hits on offensive linemen, and the results of its current research would be a precursor for any rule to ban a three-point stance.
The league piloted a program last season to insert sensors into mouthpieces as a way to record the force of every impact for players, including offensive linemen. It is testing devices similar to the Guardian Shield, a soft covering for helmets that might help absorb force. And according to NFL executive vice president Jeff Miller, the league recently reached an agreement with AWS for a project called the Digital Athlete, which eventually will allow the league to quantify and track every head impact through machine learning.
"We're doing the work now to understand offensive line exposures and concussions in different scenarios, from practice in preseason all the way to games, to better appreciate what environment they're experiencing," Miller said. "Once we understand it better, which we will, we'll share that broadly with the competition committee, and I'm sure they will make informed decisions. That's the model we follow on rule changes overall."
The XFL, meanwhile, considered banning the three-point stance as part of a re-imagined game for its 2020 season. Its board of advisers included Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon with a long history of brain research in football players and who had recommended the Pop Warner rule change.
The XFL worked with The Spring League during the time Auerbach, Talavage and Nauman were conducting research, but former commissioner Oliver Luck said last year that the league didn't have enough data to prioritize immediate implementation. Former director of football operations Sam Schwartzstein, however, said it would have been added eventually had the league remained in business. The XFL declared bankruptcy in April and is for sale. "It's something we would probably have crawled toward, maybe in Year 4," Schwartzstein said recently. "But we couldn't start there."
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mused about the potential disappearance of three-point stances for offensive linemen as early as 2010, noting how pro schemes were increasingly emulating lower-level spread innovations. That transition has continued to evolve, especially at the college level. Eventually, a rule change could be moot.
There is no universal data that can tell us the current frequency of each type of stance. But LeCharles Bentley, a former NFL center who now runs OLP, an academy in Arizona that specializes in instructing offensive linemen, estimated that college offensive linemen are in two-point stances on 70% of plays. NFL numbers are more varied per team. But from Pop Warner through USA Football and into many high schools and colleges, linemen are learning to block from two-point stances with a frequency that belies any concern that a rule change would require a massive adjustment in technique.
Absent a rule change, though, Bentley now advocates for changes that don't require additional research to implement.
"Ultimately, what we're trying to do is change player behavior at all levels," Bentley said. "The two biggest influences on player behavior in terms of performance is your coaching language and drill selection. Coaching language is going to create player behavior, and your drill selection is going to reinforce it."
For example, Bentley wants coaches to stop teaching players to "get their head across" opponents when blocking on outside run plays. "That uses the helmet as a coaching point," Bentley said.
Instead, he suggested something like: "I need you to own the angle on the defender's outside armpit." Such language accomplishes the same goal, but removes the once-ubiquitous demands that lead to relatively mild but still damaging head impact.
"We can teach the game through angles, targets and coaching points that are tangible to a kid," Bentley said, "without using the perspective about leading with the head."
There is less industry momentum for mandatory two-point stances among defensive linemen, the kind Pop Warner has implemented. Auerbach noted the tightrope of realism for any rule change: "Can we make the game safer without people saying, 'That's not football anymore'?" But as his research has indicated, raising just one side of the line could make a significant improvement.
Ultimately, Bentley said, a ban on three-point stances is but one piece of the puzzle.
"And it isn't going to be just one piece that will solve this issue," he said. "And until we're able to put the entire piece of the puzzle together, some of that low-hanging fruit will give us more to bite from. There are going to be many different ideas. The two-point stance might very well be part of the solution, but I don't believe right now it's the sole answer, especially if you say, 'We'll go to the two-point stance, but we're not going to address coaching language.' Then we're right back where we were.
"But the research needs to continue to be done, so we can keep asking better questions and keep finding better answers."