The anxiety seemed unexpected. In the days leading up to Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13, the NFL’s health and safety team issued a call to action in response to a spike in injuries on special teams, especially punts. According to the league’s data, which had not been widely released until now, the percentage of missed time due to punting injuries has increased by about 50% over the past two seasons.
“Before I go back there, I say, ‘I don’t care about my life.’ Every time,” Indianapolis Colts defenseman Nyheim Hines said. “It takes a special person to look up into the air, and a bunch of people are trying to rip your head off.”
Speaking in a series of interviews in February, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said the rise in injuries on special teams requires “immediate attention” from league decision makers. But when NFL owners, executives and coaches convened in March for their annual league meetings, there was little consensus on what to do. The NFL has largely voiced concerns amid hesitancy from the competition committee and objections from some coaches who have suggested that the surge — especially in ACL and soft tissue injuries — was the result of pandemic-related roster changes. Special team games account for 30% of anterior cruciate ligament tears and 29% of lower limb muscle injuries, although they account for only 17% of games in a typical NFL game.
Previous calls to action, especially regarding concussions in 2018, have raised awareness of a high priority issue, leading to immediate changes to rules and protocols. The number of reported concussions has dropped by about 25% since the league’s call to action in 2018, but one in six have occurred on special teams in 2021, according to figures released by the league in February. This time around, the NFL is poised to go through the 2022 season without addressing the special teams injury problem that the league’s medical staff has described as an emergency.
“It turns out,” Sills said recently, “that this is a complex process.”
Several coaches, including Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers and John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens, have speculated that the spike in injuries may be a temporary trend related to unique roster management during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I know we don’t like the injury rate,” Tomlin said during the March meetings, “but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do something structurally or schematically with punt play. I think all of these discussions start first by looking at the trauma itself, looking at the recording, the trauma that happened in this play, to understand why.”
NFL teams have been changing rosters at a record rate during the pandemic as they worked to maintain 53-man rosters amid waves of positive tests. The 2021 season featured more players in at least one game (2,372) than any other season in NFL history, with the exception of the 1987 strike season, when every franchise signed a full roster of replacement players. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the second highest total came in 2020 (2286).
Harbaugh, who said the surge in soft tissue injuries such as hamstring strains could be mitigated by improving fitness, said a rule change based on current data would be “over the top” and added: “I don’t think it’s it’s so important. Problems”.
Once at the center of the discussion, the league’s competition committee decided to sit back and “go through another year and see where the injury data is,” committee chairman Rich McKay said. This patience is likely due to a response to a 2018 concussion that included the so-called “helmet rule” – an attempt to reduce contact with heads down. This proved so difficult to referee that the league instructed the referees to call it generally “unnecessary rudeness” when they note it.
However, even before the pandemic, punts had become the most dangerous game in the NFL. According to the league, injuries sustained during the punt game accounted for the highest annualized game missed rate since the 2015 season. Returners and gunners, who are tasked with running 40 yards or more at the fastest possible speed, suffer the most, according to Sills.
“You have long-distance athletes,” said Dr. Scott Rodeo, sports medicine surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery and chief medical officer for the New York Giants. “They operate at high speeds, with quick landings and mowing, slowdowns in the open field, and sometimes recklessly. When you’re running at very high speeds and colliding at high speed, that’s a pretty good working theory, right. there.”
Both Rodeo and Sills are optimistic about the actions the league can take to reduce cruciate ligament injury rates from punting. Rodeo is monitoring research that can help identify players at risk for knee ligament tear, which is determined by factors including improper knee geometry, and deficits in balance, coordination, and neuromuscular control in the hip and core. Applying this research using different conditioning methods, protective gear and “subtle rule changes,” Rodeo said, “will give me some optimism that you can start to address this problem by getting rid of it.”
The Competition Committee is overseeing a rule adjustment that the USFL introduced in its first season. The arrows should line up inside the painted numbers, making it easier for them to block on the line of scrimmage and possibly make it harder for them to reach top speed. There may be other ways to minimize the amount of space shooter cover and the rate at which they do so, but ultimately Sills said, “You always want to make sure your solution solves a problem.”
At this point, not everyone agrees that there is a problem. And for unrelated reasons, there are fewer punts in NFL games. As coaches increasingly move to fourth downs, the total number of punts has fallen to historic lows. According to NFL data, 2019 (8.4), 2020 (7.4) and 2021 (7.6) shots per game are the three lowest in a season since at least 1981.
If anything, the decline makes the injury trend sharper. If the injury rate continues into 2022, the NFL will have to make decisions in 2023.
“It’s a tough game, but it’s the types of injuries and where we see them,” Sills said. “And we’re going to continue [working] on that play. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep tackling the problem.”
Contributing: Sportzshala Colts reporter Mike Wells