An Interest in Players’ Safety or Protecting the Owners’ Interests?: New NFL Rules Impact on Player Safety

Player safety wasn’t always at the top of the list.

Hall of Famer, Bill Hewitt, played both offense (tight end) and defense (defensive end).  But what Hewitt is most remembered for is refusing to wear a helmet.  He was the last to do so in the NFL.  During the course of his career, Hewitt played for the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and the Phil-Pitt Steagles for a year in 1943.

Bill HewittInteresting Trivia:  In 1943, due to the loss of NFL players drafted into WWII, there was a temporary merger between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers to fill their rooster.  The “merged” NFL teams were officially referred to as the “Phil-Pitt Combine,” but was unofficially known as the Steagles.

Hewitt’s most notable offensive play was the 1933 NFL championship game against the New York Giants.  The Bears were trailing 21-16 with 5 minutes remaining.  Bronco Nagurski proceeded to through a jump pass to Hewitt, who lateraled the ball to Bill Karr for a 33-yard game winning touchdown, and the first NFL Championship for the Bears.

On defense, Hewitt was known as the offside kid because he was in the opposite backfield so quickly after the snap.  And all this without a helmet.

By 1938, the Riddell Company started manufacturing plastic helmets to replace leather padded helmets for safety reasons.  But concussions remained a real concern.

According to the NFL, player concussions (including preseason, practices and regular season games) in 2014 were down 12% (202) from 2013, and 23% from 2012.  Part of this is due to the NFL’s recent focus on player safety.

Today, there exists a thick complicated book that outlines the rules of the NFL, many of which are directed to player safety. This past week, the committee voted in 5 amendments and 2 additional rules.  5 of them favor the safety of the players:

  • The NFL will provide and mandate a medical spotter for each game
  • During a kick and punt formation, the defensive team cannot push their teammates into the offensive line.
  • All peel-back blocks are illegal (an offensive player hitting a defensive player below the waist from behind or on the defensive man’s blind side)
  • “Defensive player” now includes intended receivers immediately following an interception
  • Chop blocks (blocks above the waist on a defender already engaged) – now apply to running backs outside the tackle box

The 6th change was an amendment to game clock review, and the 7th change is now known as the Patriots ineligibility receiver ploy:

What Does This Mean for the Game?

In 2014, there were 8212 total penalties called compared to 7174 total penalties in 2013.

Although the constant evolution to the game has lowered concussion rates, its hard for players to acclimate to new rules (if they even want too).  The defense has one job — to stop the offense.  It’s unlikely defenses will stop to analyze the amended “chop block” rule when trying to stop an opposing running back.  The job of the offense is to score.  And it’s just as unlikely that the offense will remember that hits from the blind side are also no longer permitted on a defender trying to get to their quarterback (“peel back block”).

The result, of course, will be like previous years — expect more penalties and fines in 2015.

No One Disputes the Need for Player Safety

According to ESPN, more than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease after their deaths.  And, numerous studies have shown a connection between repetitive head trauma associated with football, brain damage and issues such as depression and memory loss.

It’s fair to say that we can expect more injuries.  Although the number of concussion were decreased in part due to fewer full padded practices and a fewer helmet to helmet contact, players have been altering their game trading concussions for physical injuries.  According to ESPN, the number of players placed on injured reserve and the number of injuries reported (including bruises, sprains and broken bones) have been increasing.

In the 2014 season, as an example, Ryan Fitzpatrick broke his leg tackled by Colts defensive end Arthur Jones.

Houston Chronicle Photo

Houston Chronicle Photo

Even the players themselves recognize the problem.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, 24, made national headlines when he decided to retire from the NFL after his rookie year, having 107 tackles and a sack, because of his concerns about the long-term effects of concussions.

Borland, who has suffered two concussions, was suppose to replace recently retired all-pro line-backer Patrick Willis, and was expected to make $540,000.   Concerned with his health, Borland made the decision after talking to family, friends, concussion researchers, current and former teammates and doing his own research on neurodegenerative disease.

Borland wasn’t the only player under 30 to retire from the NFL, although some might not be directly related to injury concerns:

  • Kansas City Chiefs tightend Sean McGrath, 27, retired from the NFL last late July due to a “lack of passion” for the game.
  • Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker, 26, retired from a “loss of passion” for the game.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, 26, retired to pursue a writing career.
  • And perhaps most surprisingly, Pittsburgh outside linebacker Jason Worilds, a Jehovah’s Witness, announced his retirement at age 27 to work for his religion.  After 5 years in the NFL, Worilds had 204 tackles and 25.5 sacks with consistent quarterback pressure and is leaving the league as no. 10 on a list of top 101 free agents.

Getty Images

Getty Images

With more information accumulating about injuries, there’s no doubt in the game’s evolution.  After all, how much money is worth risking a long healthy life?  And can that long life even be guaranteed?  Bill Hewitt didn’t die from issues related to a head injury.  In 1947, Hewitt died from a car crash.

Although players love the game and the rush of victory, will the new rule changes make a difference for player safety?  Will the game eventually evolve to “flag football” for the sake of safety or will the current rules force players to play smarter?  Part of the answer will rest at the other side of the 2015 regular season and how teams respond to recent rules changes.

We’ll be watching with bated breath.

By Joanne Kong

Twitter: @kongfu4u