NFL: Concussions or Cash Flow?

“Taking $75,000 away from James Harrison is criminal to me.” — Mark Schlereth, former Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos offensive lineman…current ESPN Analyst.

NFL: Player Safety Policy or Revenue Risk Management Strategy

Quotes from Troy Polamalu in 2008 on NFL rules and hard hits:
http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3646392

Note the absence of references to helmet-to-helmet (H2H) contact. I believe that the NFL began to move in a direction of limiting hard hits for largely economic reasons.  The H2H hits are the gross manifestation of hard hits and require some nuanced treatment by the league.  I read where the league only offers health insurance for players for the first 5 years after retirement. I don’t know much about that, but it’s very interesting. I would imagine that the NFLPA should have a hand in that as well, but players are clearly of the mind that safety is a low-level concern of the league.  Offensive stars are the revenue engines for the league.  Defensive players acknowledges that these players (and the rule changes which facilitate scoring) allow everyone to eat.  The popularity of the league is due in large part to two factors:

1.  The capacity of the NFL to promote offensive stars, particularly quarterbacks, whose demographics are largely aligned to the fan base across the nation.  Players like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Brett Favre drive the revenue train for the league.  [The demographic factor cannot be underestimated, because it contributed mightily to defensive star, Chicago Bears MLB Brian Urlacher’s, multi-season dominance in jersey sales.]

2.  The competitive balance across the league.  In any season, a significant number of the league’s franchises legitimately believe they have a shot at winning the Super Bowl.
Who Cares About Defense?

We Do!

How many teams have fans that go to games to watch the defense? Two? Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  Maybe the Jets.  It’s not many.

So, where does that leave us on the question of player safety?

The threat of paralysis is great.  The dangers of concussions are everywhere — but guys get them all the time, even without the big hits that make highlight reels.  Linebackers and safeties crash into guards and tackles on running plays…Most fans aren’t even watching those collisions.  In all my years of watching football, I have yet to see a highlight of a big name safety taking on a guard.  It’s not big news — neither of them are carrying the ball.

However, when a couple of WR’s get knocked out, many of us say it’s bloody murder.  Rick Reilly of ESPN wrote some overly personal bullshit about Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison — I only read the first paragraph when he mentioned Harrison’s father.  I was done after that.  If Reilly was actually worth it, I suspect he might get his ass kicked for simply bringing family into the conversation in any way, particularly the disparaging way in which he did.

Is Todd Pinkston a coward?

I think there are a great many ways to deal with this issue — and some of it has to do with coaching and play calling.  Most of the concern has centered around reinforcing messages on technique for defensive players. But what about on the other side of the ball. The Eagles a team that throws the ball an awful lot. They have had notoriously poor run balance for years. When you throw the rock that much, WRs are gonna get smacked.

Remember when Todd Pinkston did the “Alligator Arms” move on Monday Night? He was reviled as a coward, but he didn’t take that big hit.  His legacy, however, has taken a huge hit.  Michael Irvin (a man whose career ended in Philadelphia following a concussion) infamously dubbed him Todd Stinkston, and the name stuck.  If the league wants defenders to ease up, maybe someone should encourage offensive players to let a few balls fall to the ground to avoid collisions.  It might raise questions about the integrity of the game, but how legitimate was Vince Young’s touchdown after he was released by Giants defender Mathias Kiwanuka, who was concerned about being penalized for unnecessary roughness?


Would we call those players cowards because they took a preventive measure to avoid a big collision? I know the media would. Especially the guys who never played — like Rick Reilly.  I think this is a complex issue that goes to the heart of the game and how it is played. It’s bigger than demonizing James Harrison.  Todd Heap was blasted with a cheap shot, but the other big incidents happened with inexperienced quarterbacks (Kevin Kolb and Colt McCoy) air-mailing passes under duress that left receivers out to dry.  Josh Cribbs was running a “Wild Cat” formation play.  As bad as Jake Delhomme is — he probably doesn’t do that.  Nor would Seneca Wallace or Vick or McNabb.  Some of them might even take the sack, rather than risk having a receiver get smoked.

Would you question Anquan Boldin’s toughness if he passed on taking this hit?

Not Shedding Tears Over Quarterbacks

That Kolb and McCoy have escaped any scrutiny in the aftermath of this event is telling.  Quarterbacks are also reminded of the importance of throwing balls that do not lead receivers into big hits.  The quarterback, then, must not merely spot the “open” receiver, but also identify defenders and anticipate their reactions to the pass.  This is why pre-snap reads are important.  On the play where Jackson was hit, Dunta Robinson was playing off of his man in a soft zone coverage.  Kolb hit Jackson on a crossing route with a ball that lacked sufficient zip to allow Jackson to grab the ball and protect himself.  He had no chance.  All of the blame for this does not lie with Dunta Robinson — especially since he was not penalized and by his own account, did not lead with his helmet.

Middle Ground

There is much more to this conversation that simply telling defenders, “Don’t lead with your helmet.” I am certain that NFL data suggests the guys with the most/worst debilitating injuries and concussions play in the trenches. This policy and the related outrage bely a true commitment to player safety.  The NFL and its media horde would benefit, as would the rabid fan base, from a meaningful conversation about the safety of all players.

The NFL, from a business perspective, would be jeopardizing their survival if no attention was paid to the well-being of offensive stars.  However, the offenses do not operate in a vacuum.  When the NFL outlawed so-called “horse collar tackles” (Dallas Cowboys SS Roy Williams on Philadelphia Eagles WR Terrell Owens), the league demonstrated sound judgment by compelling defenders to develop another method of tackling.  Demanding that players not lead with their helmets can, and perhaps should, be seen merely as an extension of this earlier ruling.  When the league outlawed the head slap, made famous by Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones, they were protecting the health of offensive lineman, not merely marquee players.  Of course, they were also indirectly protecting the health of quarterbacks because Mr. Jones assault on lineman and the record book took its toll on passers, as well.   Chop blocks, a tactic with devastating consequences for linemen on both sides of the ball, have also been outlawed.  The Denver Broncos were widely known to use this chop blocks in executing their zone blocking scheme.

The league stands at the precipice of owner’s locking players out for the 2011 season.  Owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement and are seeking a greater share of overall revenues derived from this most dangerous of games.  Players, conversely, are caught been arguing for the history of the game (“We’ve always played this way.”) and demanding fair market compensation for the risks they incur and the rewards they produce.  Many have argued, including former San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, that being a big hitter adds revenue to the bottom line for players.  Big hitters produce turnovers and big plays and they get rewarded for doing so.  What might seem like a paradox makes sense — in the short term.

The ultimate paradox, however, is that the safety of certain players must be more important to the league than it is to the players.  To be clear, the league (the owners) is concerned about the investment of cash and resources dedicated to each particular player.  There are positions where players are largely expendable because the supply greatly exceeds demand.  The notable exception among non-quarterbacks are elite left tackles.  Most other position players are expendable.  Very few are the first face of their franchise.  That honor is almost invariably reserved for the quarterback…the coach on the field.

For the player, their concern about safety is mitigated by the fact that they must actually be on the field in order to be compensated.  So, the player calculus on safety is run through a different prism.   In 2009, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner (the competing QBs in the 2008 Super Bowl) were benched during the same week due to concussions.  Both wanted to play.  For ownership, the decision was clear…the franchise investment is too great to warrant the risk.  For the players, other considerations weigh heavily.  Injuries are ever-present and an accepted part of the game…so, players make concessions with respect to safety because of the immediate economic benefits.

Remember thigh pads?  Gone.  Knee pads?  On the way out.  Remember neck rolls?  Mostly gone.  Remember club hands (heavily taped)?  Almost extinct.

Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson

Ed Reed and DeSean Jackson

As the game evolves with the pursuit of revenue, the calculus between physical well-being and financial well-being changes.  In the end, the league and its players will not be served well by focusing on the practices of a few players.  Instead, the best approach may be for the two groups facing a long, contested, and bitter battle over financial well-being to hammer out a “fair deal” on protecting physical well-being for all players.

If the NFL is not paying for the health insurance of players; is penalizing players for playing within the rules; and, is not engaged in a safety plan for all players, today’s players are right to reject the stated position of the league; to question its legitimacy and to fold this in to a larger set of labor demands.

“Too bad the acronym N.H.L. is taken.  We could call it the National Hypocrite League.” — Mark Schlereth, survivor of 29 surgeries (20+ football related), who was deemed ineligible for work-related disability by the NFL.

Addendum

The latest guidance video for players from the league.

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-videos/09000d5d81b80962/Player-safety

Hard to argue with that.

4 comments

  1. Didn’t realize they were wearing so few pads these days at the skill positions. No wonder they stay hurt. Players are bigger, faster and stronger. You need more protection, not less protection.

  2. One thing i’ve been hearing and seeing through replays, is that you cannot run through zones. This is what happened on DeSean Jackson’s hit and Massaquoi’s hit. They tried to run through the zone, when they should’ve been ‘sitting’ in the zone to make the catch. Sterling Sharpe broke it down masterfully on ‘Playbook’ via NFL Network.

    It seems that all the veteran WRs know the difference, which is why you rarely ever see them take a nasty hit.

  3. Big Man –

    I’ve heard receivers don’t like wearing the extra pads because they believe it slows them down.

    GN –

    I saw that bit where Shannon Sharpe was talking about what to do in a zone. I think it should be required viewing for all young receivers.

    In all of his years of playing, I can never remember Jerry Rice taking a big hit. I think one major difference was that he always played with QB’s who knew how not to lay out their #1 WR. Also, Rice knew how to run routes. Too many receivers today don’t know how to run routes and keep themselves safe.

  4. Great breakdown all-around Temple. Didn’t consider the factor of the young quarterbacks inexperienced at protecting their receivers…

    BTW, speaking of cowardly the whole Reilly article was awful and so typically Reilly. Would Reilly ever dare to pick on the NFL in a manner that Schlereth did? No. You will never see that.

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